Race, Liberalism, Affirmative Action (III)

We continue the debate on the future of affirmative action in response to Paul Starr's "Civil Reconstruction: What to Do Without Affirmative Action," TAP, No.9. Winter 1992.


Discussion of the candidacies of Pat Buchanan and David Duke, even of the Los Angeles riots, have faded. But they should remain troubling. They are part of a broad, all-too-familiar pattern of resurgent bigotry in American public affairs. That pattern extends to some titularly on the left, such as anti-Jewish City College of New York professor Leonard Jeffries. But it is reinforced when liberals play it safe by distancing themselves from the issue of racial equality.

To be sure, that stance is tempting. Recent expressions of bigotry may be mere vestiges of a prejudice-scarred past that merit only benign neglect. Perhaps the modern civil rights movement achieved too much for the U.S. ever to regress dangerously. But it is equally possible that such expressions are grim heralds of new growth in those hardy American perennials, racism, nativism, and misogyny. The nation has, after all, made great strides before, only to reverse course sharply.

In fact, the progress in providing rights for all citizens in the 1960s and the early 1970s broadly resembled the advances made exactly 100 years earlier, during the Civil War and Reconstruction. That parallel is not reassuring. Reconstruction gave way to a massive, successful rebuilding of vicious racial and gender hierarchies in American law and life. The task of restructuring political, economic, and social institutions to provide egalitarian opportunities threatened the material interests and moral beliefs of many Americans. Lacking the imagination and nerve to confront those fears, champions of change gave up trying to persuade most whites that a truly liberal, democratic society could be as sustaining as traditional arrangements. It is frighteningly easy to find analogies in what is happening in America now.

In the 1860s and early 1870s, a war for national preservation led the U.S. government to support long-standing quests for racial equality. The results included the three postwar amendments, freeing blacks and making them citizens, and many statutes, from the 1866 Civil Rights Act through the 1875 Civil Rights Act.

The Reconstruction reforms included more than civil rights bills: special programs to aid blacks economically, via the Freedmen's Bank and the Freedmen's Bureau, and efforts to expand public education in the South and throughout the country for blacks and whites. The struggle for black rights also stimulated the American women's movement. Leaders like Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony built political networks through their work for emancipation. In return, abolitionists and Republican leaders promised to support equal rights for women.

The Civil War also led the Union to spur immigration, through contracts offered to foreign laborers during the war and via the 1868 Expatriation Act. It promised the nation's protection to all who gave up their native allegiance to join the United States.

Finally, the Civil War era rejuvenated America's progressive intellectual traditions. Christian affirmations of the worth of all human beings were elaborated in abolitionist views. Enlightenment traditions of human rights took on richer meaning, as white and black, male and female reformers all expounded them. Their efforts carried the nation's founding commitments to human dignity and emancipation further than ever before.

The 1960s and early 1970s do not pale in comparison. Again, changes were set in train by war, first the struggle against racist, totalitarian regimes in World War II, then the Cold War campaign to avoid Communist expansion, especially in new, usually non-white, Third World nations. In this context, the U.S. government felt compelled to set its own house in order and again began to aid efforts to win equal rights for black citizens. The judiciary returned to broad readings of the Civil War amendments, starting with Brown v. Board of Education. Over the next dozen years, Congress passed, and executive officials enforced, many new civil rights bills, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The judiciary gave these laws wide scope as well. Again, the initiatives were not simply in civil rights. Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty established programs to combat minority economic hardships, including job training and child support programs such as Head Start. The nation also undertook extensive aid to public schools via the 1965 Education Act.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Like its nineteenth century predecessor, the modern women's movement was energized by its contemporary civil rights movement. By 1973, many legal inequalities had been eliminated, the Supreme Court had affirmed abortion rights and had almost declared gender discrimination constitutionally suspect. Meanwhile, a majority of the states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.

Immigration was encouraged, this time by the 1965 Immigration Act and the 1968 Bilingual Education Act. The first law ended the racially based national quota system that had for forty years curbed America's ethnic diversity. New immigrants from Asia and Latin America came; for many, bilingual education eased their transition into their new country.

In American intellectual life, Christians and other believers played leading roles in these reform movements, and liberal democratic theories of human rights found fresh expression within universities. But if the nineteenth and twentieth century reform movements shared a vision, it appears that they may also share the same fate--premature abandonment. The dismantling of post-Civil War reforms was as broad as it was swift. Not long after the Civil War, the Republican party decided that its identification with efforts to help blacks was costing it too many white votes. Republican politicians first gutted all the programs of special assistance for blacks, like the Freedmen's Bureau. And Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, who had once read civil rights laws generously, echoed many formerly radical Republicans when he wrote in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases that it was time for the black man to cease "to be the special favorite of the laws" and to have his rights "protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected." That protection proved a mirage. From the 1890s on, the federal courts encouraged the proliferation of a new, long-lasting legal structure of racial hierarchy, the Jim Crow system of segregation, grandfather clauses, white primaries, and inferior or no schooling for blacks.

The postwar women's movement rapidly disintegrated, finding itself abandoned by most male supporters and internally divided. Two rival woman's suffrage organizations formed. The more conservative group, which stressed the public value of women's domestic virtues rather than equality, increasingly set the agenda for women generally. Although women finally received the vote in 1920 via such advocacy, this conservatism proved consistent with the spread of restrictive "protective" laws that denied women innumerable economic and political opportunities.

The U.S. maintained its commitment to open immigration longer, but in the 1880s it excluded Chinese laborers. By 1900 the targets encompassed all Asians and all southern and eastern European immigrants. In 1924, exclusionists established the national origins quota system, permitting immigrants only in ratios that preserved the dominance of Americans of white, northern European ancestry.

In the late nineteenth century, American Protestantism had taken a fundamentalist turn that was often nativistic. And under the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theories applied to the races, as well as cultural theories of how history generated fundamentally different peoples and cultures, the new American university disciplines, and the progressive-era reformers they spawned, were almost all profoundly racist. Academics provided "scientific" and "historical" analyses that favored Jim Crow laws and immigration restrictions. Many black leaders retreated under this onslaught, first to the separatist self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington, then to the despairing "Back to Africa" advocacy of Marcus Garvey. To be sure, Progressive thinkers like Horace Kallen favored egalitarian tolerance of all races and cultural groups. But they did so by stressing how each group was ineradicably shaped by a unique cultural heritage and by deprecating the common national identity of Americans. Those arguments played into the hands of hate merchants like the Ku Klux Klan, who agreed that Catholics, Jews, blacks and new immigrants were different--too unalterably different to be tolerated.

The upshot was that fifty years after Reconstruction, the U.S. had legal systems of immigration exclusions, apartheid, de jure and de facto limits on the rights of minorities and women, and intellectual theories of racial and gender inferiority that were more elaborate and pervasive than before the Civil War. Small wonder that the distinguished historian John Higham has termed this period the "Tribal Twenties."

Can it happen again?Today many in the reform party of the 1960s, the Democrats, believe they have lost votes because of their identification with special assistance for minorities and women. Southern conservatives in the Democratic Leadership Council have regularly called on the party to appeal to "ordinary people" instead of "special interests." In his campaign, former DLC chair Bill Clinton has nonetheless endorsed some affirmative action measures. But liberal scholars in his camp like William Julius Wilson and Paul Starr have gone further. Like Justice Bradley, they contend the time has come to abandon all "targeted" programs in favor of "race-neutral" ones. (Starr does advocate private "targeted" efforts to strengthen "minority institutions" but not public ones aimed at integration.)

Republicans have gained and held the White House while scapegoating the poor and minorities for the failings of the nation's economic policies, schools, and criminal justice system. They have won cuts in social spending for these groups and weakened civil rights enforcement. Republican appointees to the federal courts have read civil rights laws so narrowly that even the Bush White House has demurred, and they have challenged all affirmative action measures not explicitly authorized by Congress.

As public schools have declined and resegregated, the most discussed remedy today, as in the post-Reconstruction South, is to privatize them, with increased economic and racial polarization a likely result. The modern women's movement failed to win the ERA, partly because many women still thought their distinctive domestic role ought to remain legally codified. Judicial activism for gender equality has correspondingly waned, with constitutional abortion rights shrinking.

U.S. immigration policy, in contrast, became somewhat more open in the 1980s. But in 1986, employer sanctions were adopted in a futile effort to still illegal immigration. More recently, proposals have surfaced to alter the family preference system in order to favor the countries of origin of older-stock U.S. citizens, such as Irish-Americans. Pat Buchanan's voters may have been primarily unhappy about the economy, but none seemed disturbed by his calls to restrict immigration and avert "the landfill of multiculturalism." Tensions over new Asian and Latin American immigrants are also visible in the "English Only" movement, the popularity of Japan-bashing books, and mounting incidents of harassment.

In American intellectual life, the nation's most thriving Christian denominations have again gone in theologically fundamentalist and politically conservative directions. Overtly racist doctrines remain marginal in universities; but there are disturbing signs. Some on the right, such as the philosopher Michael Levin and various sociobiologists, are once more suggesting a genetic basis to differences in racial achievements. In a widely and respectfully reviewed book, law professor Richard Epstein has urged repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Some black intellectuals and political leaders like Clarence Thomas are again embracing "self-help" philosophies that amount to acquiescing in ongoing inequalities for most poor blacks. Others, like Louis Farrakhan, are reviving illusory dreams of full black separatism.

Many of the scholars who criticize targeted programs also identify an ethnically and behaviorally defined "underclass." This is said to be a largely black and Hispanic stratum that, whether from social conditioning or other sources, is ineradicably morally pathological--irresponsible, unwilling to work, and violent. This underclass is, in short, much like portraits of inferior peoples painted by turn-of-the-century racists. Yet it is doubtful that many of the urban poor hold values very different from those, good and bad, visible in mainstream America. The evidence about the "underclass" is often aggregate statistics and anecdotes instead of systematic observations of the actual individuals behind those statistics, who can often be shown to have struggled hard to improve their lot, albeit unsuccessfully. Nor are violence, fiscal and parental irresponsibility, and drug abuse confined to urban minorities. Yet many have quickly accepted that "the underclass" is a real and growing threat. Incitements against it formed the most popular staple in David Duke's rhetoric. On the left, many minority and feminist scholars are emphasizing the socially constituted "difference" of their perspectives, often in illuminating ways. But like their progressive forebears, sometimes these writers fall into the trap of portraying groups as so hopelessly distinct that efforts to work together seem utopian. And a few, like Jeffries, are plainly guilty of ethnic hatemongering themselves.

So yes, identifying the liberal cause with further public efforts to achieve racial progress is politically risky. But the parallels between our time and the late nineteenth century suggest that the risks of not fighting hard for social justice may be even greater. And after all, moderate Democrats who stressed economic growth have not done too well in recent presidential elections. Only outsiders promising change, of all ideological stripes, have generated political excitement. If liberals refuse to be outsider champions of racial and gender progress, might not outsider champions of injustice grow ever bolder and more successful?

Major differences between 1892 and 1992 do exist. Then, the international context of European imperialism validated America's new racist domestic laws, as well as its new colonial ventures. Today the U.S. seeks to lead a world filled with independent nations of color. Perhaps as a result, modern race-based candidacies from Wallace through Buchanan and Duke have been insurgencies, opposed by major party leaders. Proposals of insurgents have often been adopted by major parties, however; George Bush's racial policies are only gentler echoes of Buchanan and Duke. Calls for "race-neutral" public policies and private aid to separate minority institutions, moreover, risk creating an America of largely unintegrated middle-class blacks, combined with neglect or even punitive treatment of the disparaged "ethno-underclass." Those conditions would provide fertile soil for resurgent racism.

If the past is prologue, the parallels between the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries at least suggest that Americans should be worried. Abandoning this country's unfinished struggle against racism will only clear the way for a new tribalist era--one that, sooner or later, we may again have to overcome.


Paul Starr Replies:

Rogers Smith equates those who favor an emphasis on economic policies for full employment and high growth and social policies that are universal in their benefits (such as national health insurance) with the abandonment of progressive policies at the end of Reconstruction. This is a curious analogy; apparently, in Smith's mind, the New Deal was a reactionary period.

For the record, Smith is simply wrong to say that I have opposed public efforts "aimed at integration." To support stronger institutions in minority communities is not the same as opposing integration, nor is it tantamount to calling for a revival of "tribalism," unless Smith equates the diverse institutions and associations of other ethnic and religious groups in American with tribalism. Moreover, if tribalism is the problem, why are the race-conscious remedies advocated by Smith the solution? Nothing is as likely to intensify the problem he is worried about than the solution he favors.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)