The Magazine

The Party of Civil Rights

It wasn't the Democrats.

Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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The result was a chilling of honest debate. One Nixon aide later said of out-of-wedlock births: "You weren't supposed to talk about that." This self-censorship was costly, as evidence began to appear that busing had inconclusive effects on academic achievement, that minority set-asides did not spark black middle-class growth, that welfare, while helping many, harmed many others, and that problems like family structure, crime, and educational lags were worsening socio-economic disparities with devastating effectiveness.

It took no time at all for individual commentators to point out these problems, but it took decades for the intellectual orthodoxy to develop serious cracks. In the 1980s, Reagan administration lawyers challenged head-on the most expansive racial preferences and the assumptions that justified them. Welfare came under withering scrutiny from scholars like Charles Murray, and, in the 1990s, politicians and voters from both sides of the aisle enacted welfare reform to propel more of the poor into the labor market and toward lives of greater self-sufficiency. Just in the past few years, scholarship has begun to document some perverse effects of affirmative action programs. In 2005, the fortieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report was noted with articles that validated the original conclusions and condemned the smear that greeted its author.

In the end, the position that has best stood the test of time is the long-standing conservative proposition that improving individual capabilities--through quality education--is the best means of reducing socio-economic disparities, with the additional virtue of not being zero-sum, as racial preferences and minority set-asides are.

In the half-century since the 1957 Civil Rights Act, dramatic gains occurred in many areas, but rigid intellectual orthodoxies heavily contributed to the terrible worsening of problems in other areas. Maybe after 50 years, America is finally prepared to have a debate--driven by facts and not ideology--on how to tackle the remaining racial disparities.

Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.