Fifty years ago, a presidential commission warned that the country was coming apart, predicting that it could become two separate and profoundly unequal societies. However, the Kerner Commission’s powerful report had little impact. Its warning came as Republicans made a historic decision to embrace the Southern segregationists and create a new national coalition based on fear of social change. They won, and 1968 was a turning point.
President Richard Nixon was sworn in on a law-and-order platform, exploiting fear of Black violence, and quickly turned the Supreme Court around with four appointments. No Democratic president would name a justice for almost a quarter-century. The court that had helped spark the Southern civil rights revolution soon became the place where civil rights were interpreted away.
The War on Poverty and other policies in the 1960s to make education, health care, and housing accessible and affordable to lower income families and people of color were dismantled by conservatives. Efforts to expand desegregation from the South to the North and West became critically limited in 1974 by a changed Supreme Court. Reagan ended a proven program supporting successful interracial schools and asked the courts to end other desegregation plans.
A half-century ago, it was already obvious to civil rights groups and the courts that simply forbidding discrimination could not change deeply rooted social practices. A conscious plan to improve opportunities and measure the results was needed. In school desegregation court orders, this meant actually assigning both students and teachers to populate and sustain substantially integrated schools—a policy that produced decades of progress. Plans for military integration, carried out very seriously after severe racial problems in the Vietnam War, were among the most comprehensive and successful. Affirmative action practices improved opportunities for people of color in education and in business, and Title IX opened doors for women.
The conservative movement fostered a belief that social policy efforts to change race relations were unnecessary and unfair, and reinforced stereotypes blaming minority communities for their own problems. In the 1970s and 1980s, a huge wave of tax cutting at the state and federal levels greatly reduced money for social supports. Aid to colleges was slashed and costs transferred to students and their families.
The American myth is that there were severe racial problems before the 1960s but the great civil rights laws solved them. In truth, while there was historic progress in dismantling the official segregation of the South, profound racial separation and inequality continued in the great cities that were transformed by the Black exodus from the South and, later, by the even larger Latino migration. Both groups faced severe discrimination and segregation. Warnings from Martin Luther King before his assassination and from the authors of the Kerner report about the steps needed to create equal opportunities for urban Blacks were ignored. A large drop in the White birth rate and a huge non-White immigration changed society, even as the tools of civil rights reform were abandoned.
Over the past four decades, we have seen steady conservative pressure to dismantle civil rights in spite of evidence that those policies open doors to opportunity and help build bridges across racial difference. Opponents argue that race-conscious plans are unnecessary or illegal because systemic racial unfairness no longer exists and that the appropriate policy for fighting segregation is to put pressure on institutions and individuals of color to change. Since 1991, the federal courts have dismantled systemic integration policies. Nine states have prohibited affirmative action. Compensatory social and educational policies have also been cut. As inequality deepens because of these policies, the idea that we are a colorblind society in the time of Trump and Black Lives Matter is absurd.
Because there has not been a presidential commission, a major new Supreme Court decision, or a major law expanding racial integration in generations, there has been almost no coherent response to the radical transformation of the nation’s population. We have failed to address the educational needs of the changed society and great financial need among the nation’s young.
Now we have two very large and seriously excluded groups, most living in families too poor to pay for school lunches, in a society with a massive increase in economic inequality. Now we live with a level of incarceration among minorities that is hugely disproportionate and destructive. The ambitious housing, education, urban policy, and antipoverty efforts of the 1960s have been long since abandoned. We are now dealing with head-on attacks on what remains of civil rights policy under a president who rose to power on racial demagoguery.
We are now, in key ways, in the worst situation for racial justice in more than a half-century. Almost all the school integration progress of the past half-century has been lost, and the gaps in college access have actually increased. Our president has reinforced racial fears and stereotypes, and we see many state legislatures undermining voting rights, school integration, and college affirmative action. The Trump administration is gutting civil rights agencies and suspending policies intended to protect equality, including those addressing housing and education. The administration has fostered hatred of immigrants and devastated Latino communities and schools with deportation raids.
The cohesion of our society is at risk. Much was accomplished by the civil rights revolution and we have good evidence about policies that would advance equal opportunity. Much more explicit and sustained efforts are needed. Serious work in the 1960s created a powerful agenda for that time. We need a new agenda now for a much more complex society, more segregated and unequal in some critical ways, and a new vision of integration in a century where we will all soon be minorities and have to depend on each other.
Gary Orfield is a Distinguished Research Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning and Co-Director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.