Chapter 4. Civil Rights
The contrast between civil liberties—the Constitution's protections from government power—and civil rights—protections provided by the government against the arbitrary actions of others—is more than a distinction without a difference. Whereas the former often need no action, providing the latter requires those who seek them to overcome large collective action problems.
The long struggle of African Americans to achieve political equality with whites illustrates the manner in which civil rights have historically been denied and won. Under the Constitution, national majorities opposing slavery and racial discrimination were traditionally unable to prevail over entrenched opposition in Southern states. Opponents of civil rights for African Americans were defeated only by the ascension of overwhelming governing majorities or through armed conflict.
While the motives of civil rights leaders have often been altruistic, the cause has been most successful when proponents appeal to the political or economic interests of the majority. Prior to the Civil War, for example, politicians formed anti-slavery majorities by appealing to Northern whites' fears of expanding competition from slave labor, not the principle of political equality. Following Reconstruction, civil rights languished as Northern Democrats needed Southern support to retain power. With the massive relocation of African Americans to northern cities in the twentieth century, Northern Democrats became more receptive to African American voters.
The civil rights movement was a well-organized, sustained campaign for achieving political equality. Whereas earlier efforts had focused on a litigation strategy, yielding landmark decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 but little change in the status quo, civil rights leaders in the 1960s sought to pressure elected officials with demonstrations designed to attract media attention. These efforts led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which brought about fundamental change by shifting the burden for protecting civil rights from individual plaintiffs to federal authorities.
After reading this chapter, you should understand...
- the institutional, and particularly constitutional, obstacles faced by pro-civil rights majorities in pursuing their goals
- the economic incentives that led free northern workers to oppose slavery
- why the Missouri and Great Compromises could not prevent the Civil War
- the logic of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and, in particular, why it abolished slavery in such a limited way
- how Reconstruction helped the Republican Party avoid political disaster at the hands of a resurgent Democratic Party
- why Reconstruction excluded economic and land reforms, and how Reconstruction came to an end
- how and why election laws were used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South after Reconstruction
- why Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was ineffective at dismantling school desegregation, and why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was so much more effective
- the incentives for politicians to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965
- how the shift from investigating specific instances of discrimination to focusing on "outcomes" in turn affected popular support for civil rights policies
- how self-interested politicians and groups have proven essential for successful changes in civil rights policies
- More Americans were killed in the Civil War than in any other war in American history. What did the South expect to get out of the war? The North?
- What levers of government did the southern states employ to prevent the eradication of slavery? What steps were necessary to remove these obstacles?
- How did the readmission of the southern states after the Civil War threaten the Republican Party's grip on power? How was Reconstruction tailored to help ensure that Republicans remained in power?
- What benefits did Reconstruction produce for former slaves? For northern whites? What did Reconstruction "leave out" and why?
- What party did most African Americans support prior to the 1930s? After the 1930s? What was responsible for the change?
- How did the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s change the political calculations of Democratic politicians? How were the demonstrations planned strategically to increase pressure on politicians?
- What challenges and opportunities do Hispanics face in their current civil rights efforts? How do these differ from those blacks faced in their civil rights campaigns?
- How has the Supreme Court responded to efforts to use affirmative action in college admissions?
- Why did the Equal Rights Amendment fail to be ratified despite its initial popularity?
- How does the campaign for gay rights differ from prior civil rights campaigns?