Race-conscious policies are usually defined as those explicitly and directly intended to affect the life conditions of racial minorities, whether it be to promote racial equality or preserve the racial status quo. Race-conscious policies in the contemporary United States have been targeted predominantly at African Americans.
Race has been entangled with public policy throughout the history of European settlement in North America. Slavery was introduced early in the seventeenth century, and lasted until the Civil War (1861–1865), more than two centuries later. It was soon replaced by the two-caste racial system known as “Jim Crow,” which was most formally organized in the American South. That system was passionately supported by most southern whites, and it was, by common agreement, essentially ignored in both local and national political debates for many years.
The 1930s brought renewed political attention to race. The peremptory lynching of blacks for real or imagined offenses was then a common, though extreme, technique for enforcing the two-caste racial system. Federal anti-lynching legislation was proposed in Congress, but President Roosevelt refused to support it, fearing the loss of his critical political base in the white South. Roosevelt’s centerpiece economic legislation, however, which created the Social Security system, was intended to provide support to all older and disabled Americans, regardless of race. But at the behest of white congressmen from the South, agricultural workers and domestic servants were excluded from coverage, leaving those predominantly black segments of the southern work force dependent on the low wages normally paid by white farmers, businessmen, and families. Race was central to congressional debates on both of these issues. Unlike lynching, however, social security was not an explicitly race-conscious issue.
At the end of World War II (1939–1945), formal racial segregation and discrimination remained the cornerstones of southern society, and they were only somewhat less common elsewhere. Civil rights advocates soon began to propose a wide variety of race-conscious policies, all designed to eliminate the elaborate machinery of law, institutional practice, personal behavior, and public opinion that sustained racial inequality. These proposals were almost always greeted with overwhelming opposition in the white South, and they were often initially opposed by whites elsewhere as well. Nevertheless, a number of civil rights successes followed, including the 1950 desegregation of the armed services; the 1954 Supreme Court order to end school segregation; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated the desegregation of public schools and public accommodations and banned discrimination in employment; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discrimination in the voting process; the 1967 Supreme Court order invalidating laws against racial intermarriage; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in housing. By the 1970s, these paradigmatic race-conscious policies had largely eliminated both the legal foundations and public support for formalized racial segregation and discrimination.
Still, major racial gaps persisted in most areas of life, including educational attainment, income, wealth, health, crime, and mortality. These racial gaps were national problems, but outside of the South they often were perpetuated by custom rather than law, making them more difficult to address directly. Moreover, many of the new civil rights policies had initially been accompanied by weak enforcement provisions. For example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated equal opportunity for all individuals, but lawmakers explicitly rejected proposals that would have required racial equality in outcomes, such as quotas for hiring or college admissions.
In the 1970s, a variety of new race-conscious policies were proposed that were more results-oriented. That is, they were designed to produce actual racial equality in outcomes, not just opportunities, with less concern about the reasons for inequality. The end of de jure segregation, originally created by the legally mandated separation of the races in the public schools, had not ended extensive de facto segregation, created by the largely voluntary residential separation of the races. In 1971 the Supreme Court first ordered the use of busing to redistribute children across school systems. Court-ordered busing soon spread throughout the nation as a solution to racial segregation. This race-conscious policy was vastly unpopular among whites, and racial prejudice was apparently the strongest factor in generating that white opposition.
“Affirmative action” became a blanket term applied to results-oriented policies in several domains, including preferences for minorities in hiring and promotion, “setasides” of government contracts for minorities, and preferences for underrepresented minorities in higher education. Such policies soon attracted opposition from many, if not most, whites, again often driven by racial prejudice. A series of closely divided court cases followed. The Supreme Court narrowly upheld preferences in higher education in the 1978 Bakke case, but in 2003 it rejected one University of Michigan plan while narrowly accepting another.
A second category of race-conscious policies is somewhat different. Like de jure segregation, explicit racial policies directly target blacks. Like de facto segregation, implicit racial policies may disproportionately affect blacks, although they are designed to be universalistic and apply equally to people of all races. Implicit racial policies are marked by advocacy that usually includes racial overtones in its visual aids and stereotyped anecdotes, by the polarization of the attitudes of whites and blacks (both among advocates and the mass public), and by the role of racial attitudes in motivating policy preferences, both pro and con.
“Welfare” is a prominent implicit racial-policy domain. In the late 1960s, “the poor” came to be increasingly identified by many Americans as being urban and African American (Gilens 1999), and the opposition to “welfare” among whites became rooted more strongly in racial animosity. A second implicit racial domain is that of “law and order.” A number of tough crime policies have been tainted by their association with racial inequality, such as the death penalty, “three strikes” laws, mandatory sentencing laws, the opposition to “permissive” judges, and the especially harsh penalties for the sale and use of crack cocaine, which is used extensively by African Americans. A celebrated political case focused on Willie Horton, a black murderer who, while on a weekend furlough from prison, brutally assaulted a white couple in their home. This case was used successfully by the 1988 Republican presidential campaign to attract racially conservative whites.
A third category of potentially race-conscious policies has been generated by the expanding waves of immigration to the United States and western Europe. Immigration policies concerning border control, citizenship requirements, and public services for the undocumented are all relevant here, as are language policies, such as bilingual education, multi-language ballots, and the drive for an “official” language. These political issues do not comfortably fit within the category of explicit race-conscious issues, because most of the new immigration to the United States has come from Latin America and Asia, rather than involving people of African descent. However, they often are framed as explicitly targeting other stigmatized groups, such as Mexican Americans.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, white support for the old system of legalized segregation and discrimination had virtually disappeared. However, there was still much white opposition to policies intended to remedy racial inequality, and new theories explaining this opposition began to develop. Social psychologists described new forms of racism—such as “symbolic racism”—that had replaced the old, discredited Jim Crow racism (Sears & Henry 2005). Sociologists, meanwhile, focused more on whites’ feelings that black gains threatened their real resources and superior group position (Bobo and Tuan 2006).
The gradual movement of American society to formal racial equality and the expanding numbers of non-European immigrants have converged to produce new political debates on multiculturalism and identity politics. “Multiculturalism” has several meanings, variously describing a society with peoples of many cultures, tolerance and equal treatment for people differing in values and customs, or the privileging of group identities as bases for resource allocation, political alliances, and even self-concepts (Citrin et al. 2001). Although multiculturalism has been influenced by the long intellectual history of black nationalism, it has spread far beyond race and ethnicity as group categories, and therefore well beyond race-conscious policies as well.
SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Attitudes, Racial; Brown v. Board of Education, 1954; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Desegregation; Desegregation, School; Jim Crow; Lynchings; Racism; Welfare
Bobo, Lawrence, and Mia Tuan. 2006. Prejudice in Politics: Group Position, Public Opinion, and the Wisconsin Treaty Rights Dispute. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Citrin, Jack, David O. Sears, Christopher Muste, and Cara Wong. 2001. Multiculturalism in American Public Opinion. British Journal of Political Science 31 (2): 247–275.
Gilens, Martin. 1999. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schuman, Howard, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan. 1997. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sears, David O., and P. J. Henry. 2005. Over Thirty Years Later: A Contemporary Look at Symbolic Racism. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Mark Zanna, Vol. 37, 95–150. San Diego, CA: Elsevier/Academic Press.
Sears, David O., Carl P. Hensler, and Leslie K. Speer. 1979. Whites’ Opposition to “Busing”: Self-interest or Symbolic Politics? American Political Science Review 73: 369–384.
David O. Sears
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