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Keep Fear Alive

The liberal obsession with playing the race card.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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As he had made clear (but not clear enough), Gold-water, a member of the Arizona chapter of the NAACP who had helped desegregate his local Sierra Club chapter and for many years had practiced fair hiring in his family’s business, backed integration, voted for the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960, and was prepared to vote for this one, except for one thing: Title VII, mandating prosecution of discrimination by private employers, which he considered an unacceptable expansion of federal power. This provision was questioned by well-intentioned critics for two different reasons: Discrimination by private employers would be so hard to prove that it would necessitate a de facto quota system as proof of compliance, and it would involve an expansion of federal control and surveillance over private employers to a point never dreamed of before. To movement conservatives, this last point was key. “If my vote be misconstrued, let it be, and let me suffer the consequences,” Goldwater said in explaining his no vote to the Senate. “I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort and I believe that though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help​—​but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution and which require for their effective execution the creation of a police state.” 

Goldwater was misconstrued, and he suffered the consequences, and the five states he won in the Deep South as a result in the 1964 election were not worth the trouble they caused later on. Ironically, John Kennedy seems to have considered Title VII equally troubling, for it was not in the civil rights bill he drafted, but was added by a House subcommittee after his assassination. Had Kennedy lived, Goldwater would have supported the bill, and the issue would never have tainted the movement. As it was, the civil rights movement, which depended on federal power to break the back of entrenched local laws and traditions, emerged just in time to crack heads with the conservative movement, with its belief that unrestrained federal power would in time prove a threat to the sort of individual liberty that the civil rights movement sought. Conservative leaders were not adept enough at the time to finesse the issue, which would have been to vote for the bill with caveats and with reservations, making it clear that this was a one-off. It was an error of judgment, for which the conservative movement has never stopped paying. It was the wrong vote taken without wrong intentions and not a mistake of the heart.

Fact number two is the undisputed contention that all conservatives and most Republicans opposed and tried to dismantle the elaborate systems of quotas and preference that grew up after the first civil rights laws had been codified, reflecting not a desire to reassert racism, but a disagreement over what “racism” and “civil rights” actually meant. Liberals thought rights applied to groups, conservatives to individuals; conservatives believed in equality of opportunity, liberals thought this was empty unless outcomes were equal; conservatives thought that if doors were held and stayed open, people would tend over time to find their own levels, liberals tried, with an elaborate system of racial quotas and preferences, to create the sort of outcome in which the balance of races and genders fit their ideal. 

These were two different concepts of “rights” and of “justice,” in which each side thought it held the high ground. As Reagan’s biographer Steven F. Hayward quotes Reagan Justice official William Bradford Reynolds, “The idea of equal opportunity got changed in the minds of some to a concept of equal results, and individual rights were translated into group entitlements.” Hayward goes on to explain, “The Reagan administration’s aim was not to roll back genuine civil rights protections, but to draw the line against the egregious use of explicit race-conscious quotas, and the legitimization of group rights that racial quotas represent.” 

By defining racial preferences as “civil rights measures,” the left tried to present a unified theory of conservative racism stretching from Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act into an unending future. But this never convinced the American people, who consistently opposed all unequal treatment and voted against it when given the chance. On the side of the right were also the facts that Frederick Douglass had opposed quotas, members of the NAACP had at one time been doubtful about them, John Kennedy had voiced doubts about them, and Hubert Humphrey had responded to doubts raised by JFK’s friend George Smathers by saying, “If the Senator can find .  .  . any language which provides that an employer will have to hire on the basis of percentage or quota .  .  . I will start eating the pages [of the Civil Rights Act] .  .  . because it is not there.” 

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