The Evolving Civil Rights Movement:

I love good articles about race and diversity the most pressing issue in this election is the changing or evolving civil rights movement of the 21st century.

A couple of weeks ago President Obama talked about his support of same-sex marriage and in the end, the President said, he believes it’s important to “treat others the way you would want to be treated. “We need to recognize that people are going to have differing views on marriage and those views, even if we disagree strongly, should be respected.

As we evolve as a society we have to look at issues similar to this issue and decide the fairness of this and as President Obama stated “treat others the way you would want to be treated.” That line made me remember what my late grandmother use to say to me. It is a simple way of thinking

The Evolving Civil Rights Movement:

Old Civil Rights and New Immigration

Current, January 1994

Peter Schuck

The political rhetoric of civil rights–its ideology, iconography, and martyrology–has always kept the stirring black struggle for equality on center stage. At the same time, this rhetoric has treated the immigrant’s drama as peripheral, rather like Shakespeare’s (not Stoppard’s) treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There are signs, however, that the audience’s attention has begun to wander, diverted by the performances of immigrant groups on other stages. These developments make the relationship between civil rights and immigration ripe for reexamination.

The traditional civil rights coalition–black, Jewish, and labor groups supported by liberal media, intellectuals, urban politicians, and (intermittently) Latino organizations–succeeded in forging a common programmatic agenda. Dominated by the policy preoccupations of black leaders, this agenda gave priority to governmental action designed to enlarge and protect the member groups’ claims to legal, social, and political equality in American life. Although the precise meaning of equality and the specific policies for gaining it have long been contested within the coalition and even within its constituent groups, it has centered on three principles: nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, and (more controversially) affirmative action. In its most robust form, affirmative action is defined as race-based, government-enforced group preferences in the distribution of socially valuable, centrally allocated resources.

The civil rights coalition can lay claim to a glorious, heroic past. Beginning with the postwar integration of the armed forces, it won many landmark victories. It renovated public law and reshaped public opinion, advancing equal opportunity in education, housing, voting rights, public accommodations, and numerous public programs and private activities. In the 1960s and increasingly during the 1970s and 1980s, the coalition expanded to include other groups–including the disabled, the elderly, women, aliens, gay men and lesbians, children, Latinos, Asians, native Americans–by grounding civil rights claims in a more universal ethos of human rights. These new groups invigorated the coalition and, like their predecessors, helped to alter public values and reform private institutions. This broader coalition won new civil rights victories even during the Reagan-Bush years: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Immigration Act of 1990, the Civil Rights Amendments of 1991, and the extension of many state and local civil rights laws to protect women and gay men and lesbians. As if to seal the alliance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People early in 1993 organized its first Hispanic chapter in New York City.

Despite these impressive gains, the coalition’s salad days may be over. The internal disarray and drift of the NAACP, the movement’s flagship, and Bill Clinton’s downplaying of black civil rights issues during the presidential campaign are signs of danger. Furthermore, the coalition has been unable to prevent clashes (politically and in the streets) among black, Latino, and Asian groups. The power of organized labor, urban voters, and left-wing Democrats has been declining. And many states have sought to reverse protections for gay men and lesbians, who (to the annoyance of many blacks) claim continuity with the black struggle for civil rights.

Other issues, including the deficit, health care, economic reform and global competition, now dominate the policy agenda, shouldering civil rights aside and marginalizing the coalition in favor of other claimants whom politicians find more compelling. More ominous in the long run, however, may be the growing gap between how the coalition and the general public think about civil rights. To traditional activists, discrimination–both intentional and structural–is a, if not the, central cause of minority group crime, substance abuse, dependency, school- leaving, teen pregnancy, and abandonment. The general public, on the other hand, places far greater blame on debased family values, failed public programs, and individual immorality.

To these stresses on the civil rights coalition, burgeoning immigration has added new ones. The catalyst was the 1965 immigration reform, which repealed the detestable decades-old national origins quotas and enabled many new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa to come to the United States. This law was in fact a momentous civil rights victory, extending the notion of equal treatment beyond U.S. borders to national and ethnic groups traditionally disfavored by our immigration laws. That it also contributed to the coalition’s future decline is an arresting political irony. No one expected this reform to unleash demographic, legal, socioeconomic, ideological, and political forces that, several decades later, would threaten the civil rights coalition that worked so hard to enact it.


The new immigration’s effects on the future size and shape of the U.S. population are enormous. The 1980s brought more legal immigrants to the United States (though not as a percentage of the population) than any other decade since 1910. Immigration has continued to rise. Even ignoring the more than 2.6 million illegal aliens amnestied between 1989 and 1992 under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), annual legal immigration rose from 612,000 in 1989 to 656,000 in 1990, to 704,000 in 1991, to 810,000 in 1992 (preliminary figures). Under the Immigration Act of 1990, the United States is scheduled to admit each year about 700,000 permanent residents, more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, and some fraction of the several hundred thousand aliens who are still Iitigating their ways into the 1986 amnesty program.

These figures, however, only relate to legal immigration. Including illegal entrants would make total immigration for the 1980s the highest for any decade in American history. Although data on illegal immigration are notoriously unreliable, let us take the best pre-IRCA estimates of the number of illegal aliens who entered and remained in the United States more or less permanently: about 200,000 a year. Let us then assume, as the Census Bureau now does, that illegal immigration has now returned to its pre-IRCA levels. This would imply that the U.S. absorbed 2 million illegal aliens during the 1980s, many of whom failed to qualify for legalization and thus will remain here illegally.

Adding this illegal flow to the legal migrants would imply a total “permanent” increase of roughly 10 million people during the decade. (Out- migration during the period might reduce this total by about 1.5 million.) As a result, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born rose from 6.2 percent in 1980 to 7.9 percent in 1990. Although these figures are well below the 13.5 percent level of 1910 (and lower even than in some European countries, like France), we have still experienced a substantial increase in a single decade, especially given that today’s population base is so much larger. When the Census Bureau combines legal and “permanent” illegal immigration trends, moreover, it estimates that, in the future, immigration will increase by as much as 1.4 million annually.

How will this affect civil rights politics? In a democracy like ours, ethnic demography is political destiny. By that remorseless standard, blacks are steadily losing power relative to other groups, including some of their traditional coalition partners. First, the ethnic groups that comprised most of the 1980s immigration flow have grown rapidly, dwarfing the black cohort’s rate of increase. During the decade, the Asian population increased by 107 percent, the Hispanic (as defined by the Census) by 53 percent, and the black by only 13.2 percent. The immigrant groups, of course, start from a much smaller population base than blacks, but their fertility rates remain higher than those of both Americans in general and black Americans in particular (though the immigrant fertility rates, like those of other groups in the U.S., are likely to decline over time).


Political influence, moreover, reflects not just raw numbers but the way in which those numbers are aggregated in elections: effective voting power. In an electoral system dominated by single-member districting, effective voting power is a function (among other things) of geographic concentration and voter turnout. New immigrants, both legal and illegal, are heavily clustered in a relatively small number of metropolitan areas, as the most recent data on place of residence of legalization applicants reveal. In 1991 only five states accounted for seven out of eight applicants; over 54 percent resided in a single state, California, and half of the top ten metropolitan areas of residence were in California. Applicants from Los Angeles-Long Beach, who were overwhelmingly Mexican, accounted for over 34 percent of the nation’s total. On the other hand, because housing discrimination in urban areas tends to be far greater against blacks than against Latinos and Asians with similar income levels, blacks tend to be more residentially concentrated. This has a compensating effect of enhancing black voting power, as measured by bloc control of particular legislative seats. The recent struggle over representation on the Los Angeles City Council, in which Latinos, Asians, and blacks struggled over who would control the redistricting plan, undoubtedly pre- figures bitter conflicts to come.


Legislative policy and judicial decisions during the 1980s altered the law in ways that will probably favor precisely those aliens most likely to compete with American blacks for jobs, voting power, public benefits, patronage, and housing. IRCA and the 1990 act substantially increased the numbers of both legal and formerly illegal immigrants admitted now and in the future. As already noted, the amnesty program and larger visa allotments added millions to the legal population. The 1990 law’s provisions on “family fairness,” temporary protected status, and “diversity” (which strongly favor white Europeans, especially the Irish) also favor visa applications by many others who are here illegally. Other provisions make it easier for aliens, once admitted, to naturalize (and thus vote) than it was in the past. Indeed, their growing numbers have led some cities such as Takoma Park, Maryland, to permit legal resident aliens to vote in local elections even without naturalization. Moreover, anti- discrimination provisions in the 1986 law, strengthened in 1990, protect the employment opportunities of aliens who compete with black Americans for scarce jobs. Although the new law favors the admission of higher skilled workers more than the earlier one did, the continued influx of illegal workers is certain to heighten job competition further for low- skilled black Americans. During the 1980s the courts also rendered many pro-alien decisions concerning the asylum, due process, and equal protection rights of deportable aliens. These decisions have already made it easier for undocumented workers to enter, remain, work, raise families, and resist deportation. The huge backlog of asylum claims (now over 215,000), together with severe budget constraints on detention facilities and more liberal asylum adjudication and work authorization rules, create powerful pressures on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to release undocumented workers into the community and the job market, pending their hearings. A settlement in one case will protect from deportation almost 200,000 undocumented Central Americans until their hearings; in fact, INS will probably be unable to hold many of these hearings because of its enormous case backlogs.

The courts during the 1980s also altered affirmative action law in ways that are exacerbating ethnic tensions between blacks and their recently arrived competitors. In City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson, for example, the Supreme Court limited the power of local governments to use affirmative action to promote minority contracting in public projects. Not coincidentally, Croson originated in Richmond, Virginia, where, as in a growing number of cities, blacks controlled the city government and hence could give patronage to their own firms.


At the same time, the court has supported race-based affirmative action in the context of electoral districting under the Voting Rights Act. Egged on by the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments and Republican political strategists, as well as by traditional civil rights activists, the Court has interpreted the act to maximize minority representation by creating what are in effect safe legislative and judicial seats for residentially concentrated racial and ethnic groups. This approach confers clear personal benefits on minority legislators but, as Lani Guinier, Carol Swain, and others have shown, has dubious consequences for their minority constituents. In New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and other cities, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and even Jews (in Brooklyn) are locked in a zero- sum struggle over the safe seats. The Court’s recent Reno v. Shaw decision in North Carolina has greatly complicated this struggle, introducing new legal considerations that several pending redistricting cases from multi- ethnic cities will need to clarify.

For several reasons, this ethnic approach to districting disadvantages many black Americans who support liberal candidates. First, especially given their typically low turnout, more blacks most be “packed” into a district in order to guarantee their control of the seat, leaving smaller and less influential minorities in adjoining districts. This in turn tends to make those districts more conservative than they would otherwise be. Such gerrymandering also makes race and ethnicity even more pivotal markers in political conflicts that–being racially defined and polarized–are perceived as zero-sum. This perception may soon be heightened when the Supreme Court decides a pending redistricting case from Dade County, Florida, pitting Hispanics and blacks against one another.


Although socioeconomic competition between black Americans and other ethnic groups goes back to colonial times, the immigration of the 1980s has added new twists. Four aspects of the conflict are especially important: job competition, competition for public benefits, differentiation within the black community, and differentiation among ethnic groups.

Job Competition. To what extent does immigration affect the job opportunities and wage levels of American workers in general and black Americans in particular? In analyzing this crucial question, one must distinguish between the facts and people’s perceptions of the facts.

The labor market effects of immigration are complex and the evidence is rather inconclusive. Almost all labor economists seem to agree that immigration increases the nation’s aggregate wealth and has to some degree displaced jobs and reduced wages, especially for low-skilled blacks. But economists keenly dispute the magnitude, duration, and distribution of these effects. Some relevant factors have been suggested: how segmented a particular labor market is, how immigration affects the level of migration of American workers to the cities, how complementary Americans’ and immigrants’ labor skills and consumption patterns are, and how intensive immigration enforcement is. A recent analysis by Thomas Muller of employment and wage effects on blacks in cities with the highest immigrant concentrations concludes that the effects overall are positive. Politically more compelling, however, is anecdotal evidence that black American workers are being displaced by Cuban immigrants in Miami, Koreans in New York and Los Angeles, Mexicans in Texas, and Indochinese in Denver.


Competition over Public Benefits. Competition over divisible public benefits is essentially a zero-sum game; to the extent that aliens receive them, there are fewer left for other citizens, including low-income blacks. This is true as a political matter even where, as with Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps, all eligible individuals are entitled to the benefit. Indeed, public benefits may be a negative-sum game; if the voters believe that too many unentitled aliens are receiving them, they may insist that benefit levels be reduced. The studies indicating that immigrants in fact generate more tax revenues than they consume in benefits are beside the point politically; the levels of government that collect the taxes (mostly federal and state) are different from those that fund the benefits (mostly state and local). It is hard to know to what extent aliens use public benefits. With unreliable data, analysts often cannot distinguish between legal and illegal aliens, different nationality groups, different labor-market skill profiles, and different communities. Drawing on earlier data, labor economist George Borjas finds that immigrants in general are only slightly more likely than citizens to claim welfare benefits (9 percent versus 8 percent), but that among certain groups such as legal Cubans and Mexicans, the utilization rates are quite high; among female-headed Dominican households, the rate exceeds 30 percent. Other studies indicate that illegal aliens and their children (who are often U.S. citizens) frequently use public hospitals in Los Angeles and New York and public schools in many cities. Competition for cheap housing, public and private, between blacks and immigrant groups is also intense, as are the competing demands by different groups for their share of police protection. These public costs and group conflicts have aroused immigration-related backlashes against public benefits in many communities, even ones with traditionally liberal policies on public benefits.


Differentiation Within the Black Community. Rapid growth of the black middle class is one of the most striking features of American social change since World War II. Among young intact families, blacks have almost gained parity with whites in income (although not in wealth), a remarkable achievement given their vastly inferior position only a short time ago. And, though still vulnerable to racial discrimination (most notably in housing), many blacks have acquired new class interests that separate them from those they left behind. These upwardly mobile families and individuals, like their white class counterparts but unlike many lower income blacks, have important economic stakes in increased immigration, which increases social wealth, without threatening their own jobs. Indeed, immigration probably increases their job opportunities on balance, especially since they disproportionately are public employees who provide a variety of education, health, welfare, and other social services to immigrants. Some black immigrant groups share the black middle-class perspective. West Indians, and, to a lesser extent, Haitians tend to be more optimistic than comparable American-born blacks and have made relatively rapid economic progress in the United States.

One result of this social differentiation among blacks is that their positions on immigration issues have become far more diverse, making it even more difficult for them to speak with a unified political voice. This fragmentation was exemplified by a 1986 opinion poll in which 52 percent of black Americans favored immigration at current or increased levels, while 39 percent wanted the levels decreased. This growing class differentiation further weakens the cohesion among blacks.

Differentiation Among Ethnic Groups. An exceedingly delicate but important phenomenon in inter-group relations, and hence in the solidarity of the civil rights coalition, is the variable rate of economic progress made by different ethnic groups in the United States. Simply (and perhaps indelicately) stated, a number of relative newcomer groups from Asia and the Caribbean basin have “leapfrogged” American blacks as a group in standard indices of economic success such as income (especially family income) and entrepreneurship (blacks own only two-thirds as many businesses per capita as Hispanics). If present trends continue, moreover, other groups will eventually pass them. While the causes and the magnitude of this differential progress are still in dispute, the fact of inter- group difference is incontrovertible. As I shall suggest, this fact will profoundly affect the politics of civil rights.


The mythology and imagery of immigration have always been powerful ideological forces in American life. During the 1980s these forces produced some striking shifts in public policies and attitudes in favor of expanded immigration. I have already discussed some of these shifts.

The stories about immigration that we Americans, hyphenated and otherwise, tell ourselves invariably rest on a historical claim. This claim depicts gradual progress through dogged self-help and relentless hard work in the face of harsh prejudice against the group. These stories are inscribed in our family memories, our civic culture, and our national iconography. The fact that some of these immigration stories (or myths, if you prefer) are false is less relevant politically than the fact that they tend to undermine the group claims and status of blacks. Political elites, ordinary citizens, scholars, and journalists, in polite company as well as on radio call-shows, are increasingly making comparisons between American blacks and immigrant ethnics. Such comparisons often focus on sensitive topics: economic status, attitudes toward work and welfare dependency, family values and stability, crime and violence, school completion, entrepreneurial spirit, and labor force attachment. Those who make the comparisons share a strong normative consensus, or a conventional ideology of group behavior: all social groups must exhibit the same public and private rectitude that other paragon groups are thought to have displayed in the past. The group being judged must perform under the watchful eye and to the satisfaction of these paragon groups. The crucial, incendiary political fact about these comparisons is that they often disfavor American blacks as a group. When black groups seek race-based preferences, they invite such comparisons–a cruel paradox. After all, when a group claims a preferential entitlement qua group, it spotlights its underlying claims about uniqueness, desert, opportunity, and performance. Other groups that feel themselves disadvantaged by the preferential policies to which such claims lead are bound to reflect on their own feelings of uniqueness, desert, opportunity, and performance. In a meritocratic society that glorifies upward mobility and economic success, group claims imply group comparisons, which in turn underscore group differences. Black calls for group preferences have given such comparisons, long a staple of private conversation, greater salience and visibility in the public domain, where a subtle rhetorical etiquette governs the discourse.

How does a pluralistic society think and speak about groups and their differences? Broadly speaking, we might distinguish between two perspectives: professional social science and folk social thought. Professional practitioners and consumers of social science methodically gather, analyze, and study large bodies of socioeconomic data bearing on group and subgroup performances, rendering their judgments accordingly. Lay people with strong opinions about group differences, however, appraise group performances largely on the basis of their own experiences, intuitions, and impressions, mediated by the commentary of other folk social thinkers. By virtue of their number (comprising virtually the entire population) and the intensity of their opinions, their views also loom large in the public debate, especially when cleansed of the tincture of explicit racism that is now unacceptable in national public discourse.


Both perspectives yield group comparisons that undermine the idea that blacks deserve preferential treatment. To isolate how discrimination affects groups, the social scientist must control for socioeconomic factors that correlate with performance differences without necessarily causing them. An important example is the age distribution of different racial and ethnic groups. Jews are much older than blacks on average, while blacks as a group are older than Latinos. One would predict higher income (if the age differences apply to the groups’ working age cohorts) and lower crime rates for the older groups, independent of differential in performances. Another example is geographical location; inter-group variations in income differ by labor market. But beyond clear-cut variables like age and location, identifying spurious correlations is harder. Jews and other immigrant groups were urbanized much earlier than blacks, which would affect their relative performance, but in complex, poorly understood ways. For example, urban experience can breed skills needed for economic success but may also weaken family stability. To complicate matters even family stability may retard economic progress where, as with earlier Italian immigrants, family solidarity conflicts with individual ambition.

Even if we control for educational level, the variable most highly correlated with success, bitter disputes remain about how to measure, interpret, and compare group differences in performance. Unlike age and gender, education is not immutable but reflects human choice; it is a costly investment in human capital that invites value judgments. Indeed, Americans appraise this choice so highly that they view groups who have made it as having performed well both socially and morally.


Educational level, however, is also socially determined to some degree, reflecting discrimination’s effects on the student’s family stability, self-image, and aspirations. Thus the fact that some recent immigrant groups, notably Asians, have higher education levels than American blacks only raises another set of questions. One such question– the extent to which a better-educated group possessed this advantage before its members immigrated to the U.S.–may be answerable, but others are much harder to grapple with. If immigrants did not bring their educational advantage with them to the United States, did they face obstacles to educational attainment similar to those that discrimination created for native-born blacks? How much does discrimination actually affect educational choices? Why does discrimination appear to spur achievement for some groups while inhibiting it for others? Why are the performance differences within groups often even greater than those among groups?

Where social science is inconclusive on these questions, folk thought often speaks with smug clarity–in informal conversations, on call-in shows, and in individual musings. Impressionistic, anecdotal, and subjective, folk thought is authenticated by vivid personal experience and emotional engagement. For precisely these reasons, however, it also carries higher risks of error, ideological bias, casual group stereotyping, and even racism.

Folk thought has always emphasized cultural-attitudinal explanations for group differences rather than demographic or historical ones. This emphasis tends to make the comparisons more morally charged and invidious since folk thinking often assumes that values are simply matters of choice. It is significant, then, that social scientists, who appreciate how deeply embedded values can be, are increasingly converging on cultural-attitudinal explanations for residual differences in group performance. This turn toward cultural explanation is observable not only among liberal sociologists like Christopher Jencks and William Julius Wilson and more radical theologians like Cornel West, who might be expected to find a focus on group values congenial. Economists, who usually prefer “harder” variables, also engage in cultural explanation. Regardless of how and by whom group comparisons are made, they are certain to become more common. Pressed into political service by the newer, more mobile immigrant groups who wish to fortify their own competitive positions against blacks, these comparisons will probably also be more pointed. As their political influence grows, Asians and other groups whose immigrant ancestors also faced virulent racial discrimination here and who bear no group responsibility for black slavery or subordination may be somewhat less sympathetic to traditional affirmative action claims when these claims conflict with their own. Some of the bitterness growing out of intergroup clashes in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities where blacks and immigrants (and assimilated and first-generation immigrants) live cheek-by-jowl competing for scarce jobs and other resources surely reflects feelings of moral superiority and animus inspired by these group comparisons. Even when these feelings do not boil over into the violence and vituperation that are now staples of media reports, they persist just beneath the surface.

The mythic, evocative immigration stories that Americans and immigrants tell themselves have inspired great achievements by countless black individuals, just as they have motivated members of other groups. But this powerful ideology is increasingly being turned against blacks as a group. By using their political capital to obtain race-based preferences that other groups either dispute or wish to gain for themselves, blacks inflame resentments within the civil rights coalition and opposition without, aggravating their already heavy political disability.


As I have noted, much of the political friction within the coalition reflects tensions among groups with different interests and ideologies. On many important policy issues, from affirmative action to defense spending, Hispanics and Asians are more conservative than blacks. They perceive less discrimination against themselves than blacks do. And they often fail to support black candidates for office. But there has also been tension within groups as a result of the growing value differentiation between the organizations’ leadership and the rank-and-file. Black leaders are caught between traditional black opposition to immigration (which goes back at least to the infamous Chinese Exclusion legislation more than a century ago) and the need to collaborate with other coalition groups that are more pro-immigration. Similarly, Latino activists differ from their rank-nd- file on issues like bilingual education and immigration control. These fissures further weaken the coalition. The evolution of recent immigration enforcement legislation reveals how this split plays out politically. In the 1984 immigration reform bill, all 20 black members of Congress voted against both employer sanctions for the hiring of illegal aliens and an English language precondition for legalization. When the issues arose again two years later in IRCA, the Black Caucus split its votes only after the Hispanic Caucus decided to split. In the pivotal negotiations leading up to the 1990 Act, moreover, the Black Caucus supported the Hispanic Caucus in its opposition to an enforcement-enhancing identity card. Had the black members not done so, the 1990 Act almost surely would have died–a result that polls suggest would have delighted many, perhaps most, rank-and-file black voters. (On the other hand, recent news reports of immigrant-related terrorism and large-scale smuggling of Chinese aliens to the United States under shocking conditions has increased anti-immigration sentiment among almost all groups–so much so that a June 1993 New York Times/CBS News poll actually found that whites favored reduced immigration levels even more than blacks did.)


Two other kinds of differentiation within the civil rights coalition also threaten its political cohesion and agenda. Ethnic groups have moved out of central cities and into the suburbs at varying rates due in part to group-specific differences in economic mobility and in vulnerability to housing discrimination. Perhaps more important are differences within groups: individuals of the same ethnicity have developed different understandings of their own ethnic identities, as new experiences in the United States transform certain loyalties and identifications. Political analysis shows, for example, that changes in party loyalties of Latino and Asian voters reflect changes in the significance to them of their minority group membership, anticommunist emigre feelings and economic status. More generally, as language, ethnicity, historical experiences, and other attributes that underlie conventional groupings of individuals become less determinative and predictive of their behavior, the word “group” begins to lose some of its meaning as a political descriptor. While this has progressed further and faster for some groups than for others, it is proceeding in all of them.

As groups assimilate at different rates, shedding their traditional identities and acquiring new ones, the coalition’s salience and solidarity will erode–a process revealed in the recent mayoral election in Los Angeles and the Texas senatorial contest, where the Republican candidates attracted many previously Democratic Hispanic voters but few black ones. As sociologists have long predicted, commonalities of class and culture are gradually supplanting racial and ethnic solidarity.


Lest I seem unduly pessimistic about the coalition’s political prospects, I must make several qualifications. There are strong countervailing forces. The steep rise in both white and minority group educational levels and in integrationist sentiment has spurred a growing public sympathy for the coalition’s equal opportunity and non- discrimination goals, although not for its stronger versions of race-based affirmative action. The “social standing” of blacks in the eyes of the white majority has also improved dramatically since the mid-1960s. Demographic and legal changes during the 1980s produced new district lines that helped to increase the number of black members of Congress in the 1992 elections from 26 to 40, including one senator. (This increase, however, is unlikely to be repeated in the next reapportionment.) And as noted earlier, the coalition in recent years succeeded not only in resisting legislative and judicial efforts to reverse earlier civil rights gains, but in actually extending federal civil rights protections to women, aliens, and the disabled. Civil rights groups, then, have demonstrated impressive resilience, innovation, and capacity for growth in the face of new challenges and inauspicious political conditions. This brings me to a second qualification: the coalition’s incentive to change policy direction. I have argued that the new immigration has complicated the coalition’s search for programmatic consensus within and among its member groups and with erstwhile allies outside the coalition, and that race-based preferences may be a special casualty of this more complex politics. In their place, however, many stalwart friends of civil rights will seek to redefine the traditional agenda to emphasize conceptions of social need and justifications for state intervention based on measures of economic distress and desert rather than on ascriptions of race or ethnicity that are inaccurate–and, for many Americans, morally objectionable.

There are intriguing signs that some members of the black community, as well as some of their traditional allies, have already begun the painful process of reappraising the assumptions and programmatic directions of civil rights under the conditions of the 1990s. Skepticism about some applications of race-based preferences has recently been expressed by a younger cadre of black intellectuals like Stephen Carter, Randall Kennedy, and other contributors to Reconstruction and other new journals of black commentary, as well as by writers on race issues like Shelby Steele, Hugh Price, William Raspberry, and Glenn Loury. Though some in this group are often described as neoconservatives, they actually share much common ground with more liberal or social-democratic analysts such as William Julius Wilson, Theda Skocpol, Christopher Jencks, Cornel West, and Paul Start. While these scholars possess impeccable civil rights credentials, they urge that need or even more universalistic criteria be substituted for race in distributing resources.

Immigration is swiftly magnifying both racial diversity and intra- group differentiation. Political progress for civil rights in this setting demands need-based policies capable of reaching across racial and ethnic divides while also appealing to working- and middle-class voters–the opposite of racial preferences. There are many promising possibilities, including increased funding for Head Start, stronger enforcement of child- support obligations, an expanded earned income tax credit in lieu of minimum wage increases, and health care coverage for many who are now uninsured. While such policies use nonracial eligibility criteria, they would still disproportionately favor racial minorities and poorer whites. Voting Rights Act enforcement that focused on protecting blacks’ voting rights in all areas rather than on gerrymandering them into a few districts controlled by black incumbents could encourage legislators to promote new multi-racial coalitions on an even broader scale by forcing them to compete for black support. Moreover, as innovative Republicans like Jack Kemp have realized, these coalitions need not be limited to the Democratic Party. Once launched, this reappraisal cannot easily be confined. It will naturally extend to the broader set of policy issues on which civil rights traditionalists have long dictated the liberal orthodoxy: urban education, immigration controls, public housing, criminal justice reform, privatization of public programs, youth minimum wage laws and many others.

The new immigration is transforming the conception, complexion, and contours of civil rights politics. New leaders, affirming continuity with venerable civil rights approaches, will nevertheless invoke new symbols, form new alliances, and take new positions. Many traditionalists will resist, but the political and social forces that immigration has triggered are well beyond their control, rendering old strategies unworkable and increasingly unthinkable.


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