Rethinking Racial Progress

When Sen. Barack Obama delivers his acceptance speech Thursday — on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — he will cap a journey that seemed unlikely 25 years ago.

To many civil rights leaders, the 1980s brought setbacks to racial issues. That era witnessed the rise of Reagan conservatism, court reversals on issues like affirmative action and busing, and growing despair and poverty of the inner cities.

But it was during the 1980s that many of the broader goals of the 1960s such as integration and equality in education began to be reached, changing the mind-set of both blacks and whites — and benefiting Sen. Obama himself.

That has many students of civil rights rethinking their measures of progress.

“It’s like the way most experts missed predicting the fall of the Soviet Union,” says Jelani Cobb, a black professor of political science at Spelman College in Atlanta and an Obama delegate here. “We have millions of race studies. We were measuring some things — but we weren’t measuring the right things.”

None of this has erased prejudice, provided full educational and job opportunities for blacks — or now guarantees that Sen. Obama will win. The rise of Sen. Obama and the election of black mayors in cities around the country haven’t prevented the development of a black underclass mired in poverty in the inner city.

But the changes since the 1980s were profound.

While segregation in churches, schools and neighborhoods has persisted, American workplaces became dramatically more integrated, leading blacks and whites to have more social interactions at work, scholars and analysts say, softening racial attitudes. Almost two-thirds of whites now say they have personal contacts with blacks often or daily, according to a recent CNN poll.

Rioting and the rise in crime in the late 1960s through the 1970s fueled white anxieties and fears about blacks, especially black men. Republicans played on this fear in 1988 when they ran the Willie Horton ad — featuring the furlough of a convicted black murderer who went on to rape a white woman — which proved devastating against Michael Dukakis in 1988.

But as crime dropped dramatically in the 1990s, white fears eased, diminishing the racially charged issue of crime in politics.

Even as Americans were voting more conservatively in the 1980s, their views on race were becoming more liberal. More than three quarters of whites in 1972 told pollsters that “blacks should not push themselves where they are not wanted.” Two-thirds of whites that same year said they opposed laws prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale of homes. Forty percent said whites had the right to live in segregated neighborhoods.

By the end of 1980s, all those numbers had fallen markedly and continued to fall through the following decades. In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed a bill instituting the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

Shelby Steele, a black scholar who has written extensively about race, says whites were responding “to their loss of moral authority around race and poverty. Because of visionaries of the civil-rights movement, whites had to acknowledge that this was a racist society, even to its founding.”

Sen. Obama, he argues, represents a “cultural breakthrough” as much as a political one — a chance for whites to regain the moral high ground by showing that they aren’t racists.

Colleges had begun to recruit blacks and admit black students in significant numbers starting in 1968. Boosted in part by aggressive affirmative-action policies in the 1970s, many of them were moving up and into the middle class by the 1980s. Over the past 40 years, the number of black households at or near the poverty line has fallen to 46% from 70% while 37% of blacks are now middle class, making between $41,000 and $107,000, according to a recent study by University of Michigan professor Reynolds Farley.

The growth of the black middle class and integration of the workplace didn’t only reshape the black community, it transformed the attitudes of many whites as well.

Stephanie Campbell, a white Obama supporter, recalls growing up in an all-white community in Pennsylvania. “Although my parents hid it pretty well, you could tell the prejudices were there,” she says. She never encountered blacks until 1969 when her boss was a black assistant bank manager. “He was a really nice person — very open-minded, very even-handed,” she says. “There was never a question of someone being treated any differently. It was a good example for me.”

While black progress at the workplace has been fitful and in some areas very slow, “we haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that there have been a heck of a lot of black people who have become midlevel white-collar workers who seem to a lot of white people around them to be very ordinary,” says Sherry Linkon, a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio who studies race and class.

The 1980s also marked the election of black mayors in many cities that weren’t predominantly black, such as Harold Washington in Chicago in 1984 and David Dinkins in New York in 1989. Many of the current generation of black politicians, like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, began their careers in white corporate settings where they learned to feel comfortable — and make whites comfortable with them. At the same time, court decisions limiting affirmative action and school busing lessened many white anxieties about electing a black leader.

The 1965 overhaul of America’s immigration laws — an event overshadowed at the time by the civil-rights movement — also reshaped the country from the ground up. It triggered a transformation in the country’s demographic makeup as millions of Latinos and Asians arrived from overseas. The change in the country’s ethnic makeup, coupled with the emphasis on “diversity” in schools and the workplaces, helped transform racial attitudes, especially among young people.

As a result, the ethnic and racial diversity inside American families has surged. More than 20% of Americans now say they have a relative married to someone of another race, according to a 2005 Pew Research Center poll.

That kind of diversity includes the two presidential candidates: Sen Obama with his mixed-race background and Sen. John McCain with his daughter adopted from Bangladesh.

Says Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, “Maybe we have been healing more than we thought.”


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