The Magazine

Civil Rights and Wrongs

The stalemate was ended, but the debate goes on

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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What about durable differences in credentials and skills? LBJ, Richard Nixon, and others tried to address such discrepancies with affirmative action hiring. Nixon also increased funds for historically black colleges. But decades later, important disparities in academic performance are still with us, confounding easy explanation or prescription. It turns out that affirmative action admissions practices that “mismatch” students and schools may have resulted in fewer, not more, minority lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists. Yet, in some circles, it remains taboo to discuss these perverse effects.

In retrospect, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a long-overdue measure empowering federal efforts to smash daily segregation. That mission, while not easy, was straightforward. Other obstacles to progress have proved much more perplexing. It is remarkable, and depressing, to think that, starting from the founding of the United States, it took Americans 87 years to decide that slavery was unacceptable, another 100 years to debate whether equal treatment was called for, and now another 50 paralyzed over how best to achieve more equal outcomes. Some of the same figures and forces that most urgently pushed for basic civil rights went on to ill serve the national debate by attributing the basest of motives to political adversaries and interpreting every disagreement over means as a difference over ends. 

Nineteen sixty-four may have been a high-water mark not only for civil rights legislation but also for good-faith discussion on the subject. 

Gerard Alexander, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is writing a book about race and conservative politics.