The Black Freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, popularly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement, tore down Jim Crow segregation in law and in many cases in practice. With these victories, African American organizations and activists focused on advancing economic opportunity to end inequality based on generations of discrimination. President Johnson launched a "War on Poverty" which advanced social programs such as Job Corps and Head Start and provided overall more support for those in poverty. Both Democrats and Republicans supported and implemented affirmative action policies. And for a brief period, there was a recognized responsibility that federal intervention was necessary to advance racial equity in the country.
Though there was always some disagreement with federal intervention to advance racial equality, it would take until the election of Ronald Reagan for the federal government to deconstruct the programs, regulations and policies that had been in place specifically to advance equal opportunity.
Reagan was elected at a time when America was still reeling with self-doubt over its defeat in Vietnam. Though his optimistic campaign message promised better days ahead for the country, his positions on civil rights issues looked backward, not forward.
He opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and also sought to limit the Voting Rights Act, claiming that these laws were an infringement on states' rights. He was also an outspoken critic of affirmative action, condemning racial quotas as a form of reverse racism even though his Republican predecessor, Richard Nixon, is often credited for affirmative action's institutionalization. While Ronald Reagan vehemently denied all charges of racism, his declarations for support of states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the place where three civil rights workers were murdered in the sixties) made it clear to many that President Reagan would work to turn back many civil rights gains.
President Reagan even tried to veto the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, which stipulated that publicly funded institutions had to comply with civil rights laws in all areas of their organization. Despite his efforts, Congress had enough votes to pass the measure.
President Reagan did find success in cutting funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the civil rights division of the Justice Department -- both organizations designed to crack down on discriminatory practices in education, housing, and the workplace. His cuts rendered both agencies toothless, causing the EEOC to file 60 percent fewer cases, and virtually ensuring that most cases of segregation in schools or housing at the Justice Department went uninvestigated.
Advocating for a return to the free enterprise "trickle down" economic principles that had been in favor before the Great Depression, Reagan enacted regressive policies that favored the wealthy and higher income Americans -- segments of the population that were disproportionately white. During the Reagan years, there were radical cuts in the marginal tax rates and a lowering of the top personal tax bracket from 70 percent to 28 percent in the course of seven years. Reagan's hugely influential anti-tax ethos paved the way to change the American economy to one of growing economic inequality. Tied with steep increases in military spending, these actions helped to erase funds for social programs focused on advancing opportunity for the disenfranchised.
During these years there were also drastic cuts in government funding for school lunches, unemployment insurance, child care, subsidized housing, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which trained workers and provided them with public sector jobs. During his first few years in office the government, Reagan cut social benefit spending by $20 billion a year.
With these radical changes to economic policy, African Americans would see record levels of unemployment, poverty, increases in incarceration and steep slowing in socio-economic gains during the Reagan era and beyond.
The 1980s represents a time of regression in the United States as it relates to racial equity similar to the time of the 1880s and the following decades when racial inequality was re-established following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Over 30 years later, the United States has yet to re-embrace the activist role of the government deemed necessary by civil rights activists to create greater equal opportunity. Since the Reagan era, even in strong economic times, economic inequality for all Americans grew and for African Americans in particular, the racial economic divide remains wide and in some ways has deepened.