This article was originally published by Salon on September 15, 1997.
During the darkest days of the Cold War, the Italian writer Ignazio Silone predicted the final struggle of that conflict would be between the communist believers and the ex-believers. A similar conflict seems to be shaping up among civil rights activists, as affirmative action undergoes its last death throes.
Last month, Jesse Jackson chose the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 march on Washington to lead a march across the Golden Gate Bridge against California’s Proposition 209, passed last year, which prohibits race-based hiring and recruiting in government jobs and state colleges. The symbolism was clear: Opposition to Prop. 209 is the latest front in the civil rights struggle.
The trouble is, the architect and principal spokesman for Prop. 209, businessman Ward Connerly, is also a veteran of King’s movement. And it is no accident (as we leftist radicals used to say) that the anti-affirmative action measure is called “The California Civil Rights Initiative,” or that its text is carefully constructed to conform to both the letter and spirit of the landmark Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.
The split in the ranks is not about ending racism. It is, rather, over conflicting memories of the past and differing strategies for the future. How much racial progress has been made since the federal government embraced the civil rights agenda? What is the best way to overcome the racial inequalities that still persist?
For the anti-209 marchers, little has changed. Whatever gains blacks have made have been forced upon a recalcitrant white populace. Without remedial effort, existing inequalities will morph into new injustices. Making the government race-neutral would encourage historic prejudice to reassert itself in all its malevolence. To eliminate affirmative action, both Jesse Jackson and President Clinton have warned, is to invite the “resegregation” of American life.
Yet consider these unruly facts:
- In 1940, 87 percent of American blacks lived below the poverty line. By 1960, five yearsbefore the Civil Rights acts and 10 years before the first affirmative action policies, the figure was down to 47 percent. That was a greater and more rapid decline than took place over the next 35 years, when the black poverty rate came down to 26 percent.
- In 1940, only 5 percent of black men and 6.4 percent of black women were in middle-class occupations. By 1970, the figures were 22 percent for black men and 36 percent for black women — larger again than the increases that took place in the 20 years after affirmative action was put in place, when the figures reached 32 percent and 59 percent respectively.