An anniversary passed without much notice on September 9th. It was fifty years since President Eisenhower signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act. This was the first civil rights legislation to make it into law since Reconstruction, and it also marked just about the last time that commentators considered the Republican party to be friendly to civil rights. In the five decades since, the idea that conservatives are hostile to minorities and civil rights has been a mainstay of academic research and publishing, amply reported by the press, and happily echoed by Democratic politicians. But if we revisit the 1957 law and trace events forward from there, we uncover a more interesting story.

The 1957 Civil Rights Act was mainly a Republican achievement. For a close to a century after the Civil War, the Democratic party had been hamstrung on civil rights. Much of their electoral base and congressional delegation was from the South, and southern Democrats worked as a bloc in Congress to nix any civil rights or voting bills. The Republicans had no senators and pitiably few House members from the South, and had many constituents, both black and white, repelled by segregation. So clear was the Republican profile on the issue that Harry Truman's 1947-48 civil rights program--usually seen as kick-starting the postwar civil rights debate--was in part motivated by Democrats' concerns that preexisting Republican efforts on civil rights might win decisive numbers of black votes in key northern states in the 1948 elections.

Truman did not enact most of his program, and reform legislation hardly came in a rush when Eisenhower succeeded him in 1953 either. But Eisenhower's Justice Department did side with those who found segregated schools unconstitutional when the Brown v. Board of Education case went before the Supreme Court. Even before his 1956 reelection campaign, Eisenhower proposed a civil rights package that focused on helping African Americans in the South register to vote, though southern Democrats quickly stalled the bill in Congress. And the Republicans' 1956 platform explicitly endorsed the Brown decision, while the Democrats' did not.

When the legislation was revived by the administration in 1957, it was assisted by a key ruling by Vice President Nixon, acting as Senate president, and propelled forward by a crucial intervention by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. As author David Nichols and others have shown, Johnson struck one of the bill's key provisions and gutted another by ensuring that anyone charged with voting rights violations would get a jury trial, which was understood to practically guarantee acquittal in the South. With the bill sufficiently watered down, almost all its southern opponents caved and--despite the drama of Senator Strom Thurmond's record 24-hour filibuster--the bill was passed. It created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, laid the basis for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and tried to advance black voting rights in the South, which ultimately proved ineffectual. Within weeks of signing it, though, Eisenhower dispatched federal troops--paratroopers from the 101st Airborne--to Arkansas to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock schools.

Given all this, Nixon entered the 1960 election season with at least as strong a record on civil rights as John F. Kennedy and ran on an equally strong civil rights platform. But he lost, and from then on the idea that Republicans were soft on civil rights and even downright hostile to racial minorities became prevalent. It's a storyline that originated in the 1964 presidential campaign when Johnson easily defeated Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then as the Republican nominee won several Deep South states with heavy support from segregationists. With that, the main party of civil rights became known for its implied support of segregation. That was reinforced four years later, when Nixon, in his quest for the presidency, implicitly promised Southerners to go slow on integration, and once in office sided with southern school districts and opposed busing. From then on, the story goes, Republican politicians appealed to the politics of white solidarity by opposing busing and affirmative action, criticizing welfare, harping on crime (think Willie Horton), and appointing judges who rendered judgments in these same directions. Worse, these Republicans excelled: What Goldwater had done badly in 1964, Nixon, Reagan, and their successors learned to do well, often with code-words, a wink, and a nod. They supported civil rights in words but abandoned it in substance.

A close examination shows that, yes, Nixon and Reagan adjusted their rhetoric and behavior to try to attract southern white voters, just as Franklin Roosevelt did when he refused to support anti-lynching bills for fear of antagonizing southern congressmen. Just as John Kennedy did when he wooed southern leaders (including by voting for the 1957 jury trial provision) in the lead-up to the 1960 Democratic nomination battle. And just as Hubert Humphrey did when he rubbed elbows with Georgia's segregationist governor Lester Maddox as the 1968 election approached. The question should not be about electioneering or rhetoric but about whether Nixon and Reagan's policies made conservatism any more racist in practice than FDR's liberalism.

With Nixon, the issue of school desegregation is front and center. He broke with LBJ's strategy on this issue. Rather than threatening recalcitrant southern schools with the loss of federal funding, Nixon formed a cabinet committee, led by George Shultz, that convened black and white leaders from each noncomplying state. Together, they overcame 15 years of foot-dragging and negotiated the successful desegregation of local school systems within a couple of years. Nixon insisted that administration spokesmen not crow publicly about what was being accomplished, to avoid inflaming southern opposition. Nixon--despite the stereotype that he only paid lip service to civil rights--did virtually the reverse: accommodating southern sensibilities rhetorically while delivering desegregation substantively. He also laid the basis for affirmative action as we know it by pressing race-preference guidelines on government contractors. He pioneered sizable minority set-asides in federal procurement and contracting in the hopes of boosting black advancement in business. All in all, Nixon's was a pretty progressive record by the civil rights standards of the time.

But the terms of debate had changed by the late 1960s. Liberal civil rights activists became committed to the proposition that desegregation was not enough and that not just the moral responsibility but also the capacity to erase disparities between black and white Americans lay entirely with the broader society. They advocated large-scale government intervention to achieve "racial balance" throughout society. In K-12 education, because children were assigned to public schools by neighborhood, and because residential neighborhoods were largely sorted by race, this necessitated busing students across and even between school districts. Greater racial balance in neighborhoods could be achieved by placing housing projects in existing, majority-white communities. Poverty could be eased by greatly expanded welfare programs.

By these standards, conservatives fell short. They were skeptical that racial disparities could be solved by group-based policies and government programs. If anything, government policies risked setting up perverse incentives (financially encouraging the formation of single-parent families, for example) and lowering valuable social standards (dropping all screening for entrants to public housing).

But such interpretations were more than out of favor. The new civil rights activists enforced an orthodoxy of opinion on the subject of how to solve social disparities between blacks and whites. Daniel Patrick Moynihan discovered just how aggressively policed this orthodoxy was when, deeply concerned about black poverty, he authored a 1965 Department of Labor report--"The Negro Family: The Case for National Action"--that voiced concern about high rates of single-parent black families, which tended to have lower incomes. For his trouble, Moynihan was bitterly condemned as a bigot and his report as "blaming the victim." The latter became a common charge against commentators who tried to express genuine concern over the consequences of growing crime, delinquency, and disparities in educational performance, as well as illegitimacy.

This orthodoxy was shared by academic public-opinion research. Many race scholars began to treat conservative attitudes as presumptively racist, including any skepticism about affirmative action or expression of the belief that opportunities for social mobility are alive and well. One study coded as racist any agreement with the statement that "The streets are not safe these days without a policeman around." Others detected racism in white voters' hesitation to vote for black candidates like Tom Bradley and Jesse Jackson. This line of research accumulated into a general indictment of conservatism.

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.

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