Within a decade, Latinos will become the nation's largest minority, but this approaching change has yet to produce any serious examination of the policies that will determine the destiny of this community and help shape its relationships with the rest of society. Instead, fear of displacement on the part of whites and blacks, particularly in states where Latinos will become the majority, has fostered political demagoguery and exploitative anti-Latino or anti-immigrant policies. This approach, of course, only compounds the inequalities and tears at already fragile bonds within the society. The long-term risk is polarization and a deepening cynicism about the system by those destined to inherit it.
Though the Census Bureau predicts a Latino community of more than 90 million people by mid-century, the concentration of the change in a few regions means that there has been little national discussion about Latino rights issues, which had hardly any attention at the time of the civil rights revolution.
When the U.S. finally decided in the mid-1960s to end the apartheid system of the South and incorporate a much smaller African American population, the key changes came with the enactment of sweeping civil rights laws and supporting social and educational programs. The right to go to college, for example, doesn't mean a great deal if there are no resources that permit an eligible student to use that right. In less than a decade, the effort transformed the South from a separate society totally defined by race to a region that reflected national norms and even was more integrated in its schools, for example, than any other region.
Though the civil rights revolution is far from complete, the emergence of a large black middle class and many black political leaders is evidence of a very important historical change. The central ideas were the removal of the barrier of race, the reconstruction of institutions defined by race and the opening of opportunity for those historically excluded. These revolutionary changes, however, generated a counterreaction that has dominated politics for decades.
Unfortunately, the mid-1960s was the only period of serious civil rights changes. With the coming of the Nixon administration, enforcement was radically curtailed. Recently revealed documents prove that President Nixon pursued an intentional campaign of racial polarization through fierce attacks on civil rights policies. Two Nixon administrations and the three terms of Reagan and Bush aimed to reverse civil rights policies and to turn the federal courts in a conservative direction. Meanwhile, during the 1980s, the Latino population began to explode and many signs of deepening social and educational inequality became manifest.
Nevertheless, Latinos often benefited from the surviving parts of the reforms of the civil rights era--affirmative action, the right to begin school and vote in Spanish, less racist immigration policies, minority scholarship and college recruitment, special programs for high poverty schools, and welfare, food stamp and housing programs intended to help families facing deep problems at some stage of their lives.
The needs were (and are) very great. Latinos had high school dropout rates far higher than blacks; millions were the working poor, trapped in jobs with no mobility and no exit. Political representation lagged far behind population growth. Poor Latinos were ghettoized in urban neighborhoods where housing and education were substandard. By the late 1980s, Latinos were significantly more isolated in high-poverty, low-achieving schools than African Americans.
The problems were compounded by severe economic recession in the early 1980s and early l990s. When NAFTA enabled U.S. firms to move easily across the border and obtain much cheaper Mexican labor inside Mexico, many of the relatively good jobs for poorly educated Latinos disappeared. Education became even more critical to Latinos' future prospects and even harder to access. The risk was the creation of a vast new isolated and alienated population unable to participate in the increasingly demanding global economy.
Yet in the face of these needs, the country set about radical cutbacks in laws and programs that might help. Presidents Reagan and Bush and the judges they appointed (a substantial majority of all federal judges) set about to dismantle civil rights policies aimed at restructuring opportunity within major institutions; politicians in some key states began referendums or legislative campaigns to eliminate civil rights policies, and Congress decided to balance the budget and grant tax cuts by gutting programs critical to the working poor and to radically restrict services for millions of Latinos who were legal residents but not yet citizens.