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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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