14.7: African American Life in Reagan’s America
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African Americans read Bork’s nomination as another signal of the conservative movement’s hostility to their social, economic, and political aspirations. Indeed, Ronald Reagan’s America presented African Americans with a series of contradictions. Black Americans achieved significant advances in politics, culture, and socioeconomic status. A trend from the late 1960s and 1970s continued and black politicians gained control of major municipal governments across the country during the 1980s. In 1983, voters in Philadelphia and Chicago elected Wilson Goode and Harold Washington, respectively, as their cities’ first black mayors. At the national level, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson became the first African American man to run for president when he campaigned for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1984 and 1988. Propelled by chants of “Run, Jesse, run,” Jackson achieved notable success in 1988, winning nine state primaries and finishing second with 29 percent of the vote.55
The excitement created by Jackson’s campaign mirrored the acclaim received by a few prominent African Americans in media and entertainment. Comedian Eddie Murphy rose to stardom on television’s Saturday Night Live and achieved box office success with movies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. In 1982, pop singer Michael Jackson released Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. Oprah Winfrey began her phenomenally successful nationally syndicated talk show in 1985. Comedian Bill Cosby’s sitcom about an African American doctor and lawyer raising their four children drew the highest ratings on television for most of the decade. The popularity of The Cosby Show revealed how class informed perceptions of race in the 1980s. Cosby’s fictional TV family represented a growing number of black middle-class professionals in the United States. Indeed, income for the top fifth of African American households increased faster than that of white households for most of the decade. Middle-class African Americans found new doors open to them in the 1980s, but the poor and working-class faced continued challenges. During Reagan’s last year in office the African American poverty rate stood at 31.6 percent, as opposed to 10.1 percent for whites.56 Black unemployment remained double that of whites throughout the decade.57 By 1990, the median income for black families was $21,423, 42 percent below the median income for white households.58 The Reagan administration failed to address such disparities and in many ways intensified them.
New Right values threatened the legal principles and federal policies of the Great Society and the “rights revolution.” Reagan’s appointment of conservatives to agencies such as the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took aim at key policy achievements of the civil rights movement. When the 1965 Voting Rights Act came up for renewal during Reagan’s first term, the Justice Department pushed the president to oppose any extension. Only the intervention of more moderate congressional Republicans saved the law. The administration also initiated a plan to rescind federal affirmative action rules. In 1986, a broad coalition of groups—including the NAACP, the Urban League, the AFL-CIO, and even the National Association of Manufacturers—compelled the administration to abandon the effort. Despite the conservative tenor of the country, diversity programs were firmly entrenched in the corporate world by the end of the decade.
Americans increasingly embraced racial diversity as a positive value but most often approached the issue through an individualistic—not a systemic—framework. Certain federal policies disproportionately affected racial minorities. Spending cuts enacted by Reagan and congressional Republicans shrank Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch programs, and job training programs that provided crucial support to African American households. In 1982, the National Urban League’s annual “State of Black America” report concluded that “never [since the first report in 1976] . . . has the state of Black America been more vulnerable. Never in that time have black economic rights been under such powerful attack.”59 African American communities, especially in urban areas, also bore the stigma of violence and criminality. Homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between ages fifteen and twenty-four, occurring at a rate six times that of other groups.60 Although African Americans were most often the victims of violent crime, sensationalist media reports incited fears about black-on-white crime in big cities. Ironically, such fear could by itself spark violence. In December 1984 a thirty-seven-year-old white engineer, Bernard Goetz, shot and seriously wounded four black teenagers on a New York City subway car. The so-called Subway Vigilante suspected that the young men—armed with screwdrivers—planned to rob him. Pollsters found that 90 percent of white New Yorkers sympathized with Goetz.61 Echoing the law-and-order rhetoric (and policies) of the 1960s and 1970s, politicians—both Democratic and Republican—and law enforcement agencies implemented more aggressive policing of minority communities and mandated longer prison sentences for those arrested. The explosive growth of mass incarceration exacted a heavy toll on African American communities long into the twenty-first century.