Civil Rights: An Uncertain Present

Racial dynamics in America have changed significantly in the 27 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. Then, within some circles, there was a sense of optimism, of change for the better, and of a vision of an improved and more just America. The economic growth of the '60s brought a willingness by most Americans to include people who had been left out.

But as the times got tougher, so did the attitude of most Americans. Few have the same sense of optimism -- on economic or racial issues. And so, as the 1991 Civil Rights Act is debated before Congress, affirmative action, the public policy goal for bringing in the formerly excluded, has backlashed into a buzzword for unfair preferential treatment of minorities over whites.

The ultimate irony is that civil rights legislation, the foundation of 1960s progressive social policy, has become a personalized regulation. The 1991 Civil Rights Act offers no social reform, and instead pits individual against individual. Discussion about civil rights has degenerated into a political power struggle between various interest groups, eclipsing the opportunity to envision a more just and fair society.

Moral integrity has become a pawn in a cynical chess match. The Democrats had hoped to score big domestic points on civil rights legislation, not realizing that the Republicans decided they do not need sizable numbers of black people in their political base. In fact, the GOP prefers to have the Democrats identified as the party of "African-American special interests."

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