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COLUMN LEFT / JONATHAN FREEDMAN

Civil Rights--the Graying of a '60s Dream : Affirmative action has foundered on racial and economic divisions.

July 03, 1994|JONATHAN FREEDMAN | Jonathan Freedman is a writer in San Diego

Thirty years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a young black man is more likely to be arrested than hired. The thrust of affirmative action, to help minorities get jobs, has given way to repressive measures to put them in prison. And racism and tribalism, rising among minorities as well as whites, have supplanted the ideal of a colorblind society.

Somewhere along the road to equality, the underlying faith in law to liberate people from oppression was lost in the rancorous conflict over racial quotas. Now America has embraced a new-found faith in punitive laws, like California's "three strikes," that make it easier for young minorities to spend life in prison rather than in the workplace.

Affirmative action did not cause this backlash, but the hopes it raised--and dashed--played a part. In the 1960s, idealistic Americans believed that whites should pay for the oppression of the past by giving minorities a leg up. But by the 1980s, complaints over so-called reverse discrimination spawned a Bakke-to-bigotry counter-revolution against affirmative action. In the economic decline of the 1990s, blue-collar whites feel like an endangered species and sullenly resent concessions for minorities and women.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a good law that gave entitlements a bad name. Title II, barring segregation in public facilities, was enormously successful in smashing Jim Crow laws separating the races in the South. Title VII, setting hiring goals and timetables, helped integrate many government agencies and private corporations. But Title VI, barring discrimination in programs that receive federal funding, failed utterly to fulfill its promise.

The most controversial civil-rights provision, affirmative action, recruits minorities for jobs in traditional white bastions, such as fire stations. But resistance against it was skillfully manipulated to recruit disgruntled whites into a conservative coalition that undermined integration and shoved minorities deeper into poverty. As a result, the minority unemployment rate is higher now than in 1964, and has stubbornly remained twice as high as white unemployment for 30 years.

Socially, affirmative action provided a vehicle for advancement--the black middle class doubled in size--but with the hidden stigma of entitlement. Economically, it favored those who received higher education and pursued professional careers over those who dropped out of school and took menial jobs. Affirmative action helped a minority of blacks and Latinos to move up while leaving the rest further behind.

Ironically for working stiffs, affirmative action opened up jobs in smokestack industries doomed to extinction by the post-industrial revolution. They entered the door only to find the factory was being shut down and the job shipped overseas.

Unskilled black and Latino workers were the hardest hit by the shift from a society that made real things--and paid living wages--to one geared to virtual production. Many gave up looking for jobs and fell into the anti-social behaviors characteristic of unemployed people, targeting them for harsh punishment by police, courts and prisons.

Today's backlash against civil rights eerily echoes the post-Civil War period. The 1860s, like the 1960s, were a time of progressive change when slavery was abolished and blacks were given equal protection under the law. But Southern whites increasingly disregarded the newly won rights of black Americans, and by the 1880s, de jure discrimination had returned. In 1883, the Supreme Court forbade Congress from outlawing racial discrimination practiced by individuals; in 1896, in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court permitted "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks.

A century later, white America is turning its back on integration, and even circumspect blacks are favoring separatism. Our sagging commitment to civil rights is embodied by figures in prison denims. For every complaint of discrimination filed with the Commission on Civil Rights, a hundred criminal charges are filed against minorities. Progress has been arrested literally in the persons of youths rounded up because police suspect their color. Individuals may be guilty of unlawful acts, but a whole generation is being scapegoated for America's failure to live up to the 1960s' hope of affirmative action.

A civil-rights law alone cannot free people from discrimination if the spirit of the public is bitter and hate-filled--or simply indifferent. As lawmakers inflated with demagoguery enshrine the ugly mood of fear and resentment into repressive laws, the only consolation is that the spirit of civil rights will endure and flourish once again--if today's backlash doesn't totally condemn the next generation.

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