The Reagan Era:Turning Back Racial Equality Gains

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Advocating for a return to the free enterprise “trickle down” economic principles that had been in favor before the Great Depression, Reagan enacted regressive policies that favored the wealthy and higher income Americans – segments of the population that were disproportionately white. During the Reagan years, there were radical cuts in the marginal tax rates and a lowering of the top personal tax bracket from 70% to 28% in the course of seven years. Reagan’s hugely influential anti-tax ethos paved the way to change the American economy to one of growing economic inequality.  Tied with steep increases in military spending, these actions helped to erase funds for social programs focused on advancing opportunity for the disenfranchised.

During these years there were also drastic cuts in government funding for school lunches, unemployment insurance, child care, subsidized housing, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which trained workers and provided them with public sector jobs. During his first few years in office the government, Reagan cut social benefit spending by $20 billion a year.

With these radical changes to economic policy, African Americans would see record levels of unemployment, poverty, increases in incarceration and steep slowing in socio-economic gains during the Reagan era and beyond.

The 1980’s represents a time of regression in the United States as it relates to racial equity similar to the time of the 1880’s and the following decades when racial inequality was re-established following the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Over 30 years later, the United States has yet to re-embrace the activist role of the government deemed necessary by civil rights activists to create greater equal opportunity.  Since the Reagan era, even in strong economic times, economic inequality for all Americans grew and for African Americans in particular, the racial economic divide remains wide  and in some ways has deepened.


Poverty, unemployment, homeownership, wealth – for each of these economic indicators African Americans fare worse than other racial groups. But why? During  Black History Month the NAACP will delve into 4 major U.S. periods  (Slavery, the New Deal, the Reagan Era, and the 2008 Housing Crisis) that have shaped many of African Americans’ economic realities. These stories are not of victimization – African Americans have triumphed and excelled despite centuries of exclusion and oppression. By providing this historic framework, we hope there will be more appreciation for African Americans’ economic contributions to this country; greater understanding of the grave institutional economic challenges facing African American communities; and support for policies to remedy racial economic inequities in acknowledgement that helping the minority will ultimately help the majority.

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