The Reagan Era:Turning Back Racial Equality Gains

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  • The Black Freedom struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s, popularly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement, tore down Jim Crow segregation in law and in many cases in practice.  With these victories, African American organizations and activists focused on advancing economic opportunity to end inequality based on generations of discrimination. President Johnson launched a “War on Poverty” which advanced social programs such as Job Corps and Head Start and provided overall more support for those in poverty.  Both Democrats and Republicans supported and implemented affirmative action policies.  And for a brief period, there was a recognized responsibility that federal intervention was necessary  to advance racial equity in the country.

    Though there was always some disagreement with federal intervention to advance racial equality, it would take until the election of Ronald Reagan for the federal government to deconstruct the programs, regulations and policies that had been in place specifically to advance equal opportunity.

    Reagan was elected at a time when America was still reeling with self-doubt over its defeat in Vietnam. Though his optimistic campaign message promised better days ahead for the country, his positions on civil rights issues looked backward, not forward.

    He opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and also sought to limit the Voting Rights Act, claiming that these laws were an infringement on states’ rights. He was also an outspoken critic of affirmative action, condemning racial quotas as a form of reverse racism even though his Republican predecessor, Richard Nixon, is often credited for affirmative action’s institutionalization. While Ronald Reagan vehemently denied all charges of racism, his declarations for support of states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the place where three civil rights workers were murdered in the sixties) made it clear to many that President Reagan would work to turn back many civil rights gains.

    President Reagan even tried to veto the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, which stipulated that publicly funded institutions had to comply with civil rights laws in all areas of their organization. Despite his efforts, Congress had enough votes to pass the measure.

    President Reagan did find success in cutting funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the civil rights division of the Justice Department—both organizations designed to crack down on discriminatory practices in education, housing, and the workplace. His cuts rendered both agencies toothless, causing the EEOC to file 60 percent fewer cases, and virtually ensuring that most cases of segregation in schools or housing at the Justice Department went uninvestigated.

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