- Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace
For the past four decades, analysts have drawn a distinction between the civil rights movement's successes in ending formal discrimination against African [End Page 208] Americans and its failure to secure the economic rights of black Americans. In this telling, the Southern focus of the movement on the edifice of Jim Crow discrimination could not easily translate into an agenda for addressing the institutional racism experienced by African Americans in Northern cities where formal legal barriers were fewer, but unequal opportunity, training, and remuneration were the norm. Martin Luther King's failed Chicago campaign and the twisted history of the Philadelphia Plan to integrate the building trades are touchstones for the movement's shortcomings.
Clearly, the civil rights movements successes and failures had consequences. By the turn of the 21st century, the old system of racial stratification had been replaced by the new African American inequality. Instead of formal exclusion, black inequality was the product of a set of screens that sorted black Americans into less attractive schools, neighborhoods, and jobs. Although the new inequality did produce a black middle class, it did less to change the economic fortunes of the majority of black Americans.
In Freedom Is Not Enough, Nancy MacLean retells the story of the civil rights movement by focusing on the lynchpin between formal rights and economic opportunity—the struggles to end employment discrimination. Rather than focusing on the disjuncture, MacLean is interested in connections. On the one hand, she wants to show how central the battle over economic rights was to the goals of the civil rights movement. On the other hand, she want to show how the black struggle forced other social groups in American society—especially women and Latin Americans—to rethink their place in society. To extremely good effect, she uses as her epigraph a quotation from James Baldwin: "If you move out of your place everything is changed. If I'm not what that white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is."
Ironically, one group that very self-consciously redefined itself as a result of the rights revolutions was white conservatives. As MacLean documents, American conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s was awash in overt racism, cuddling up to the most diehard segregationists and providing an intellectual patina to the most virulently racist stereotypes. During the late 1960s and 1970s, conservatism went through an 'extreme makeover' of its position on civil rights. It embraced the language of 'color-blindness' (that it had opposed during the previous two decades) not for the purpose of promoting social inclusion, but as a means of opposing any actions that would further it.
Its most successful effort in this respect was the promotion of the myth of the 'great betrayal,' the idea that those who promoted economic inclusion and affirmative action had betrayed the original intent of the civil rights movement by advocating preferential treatment and 'reverse discrimination.' As MacLean shows, even many who promoted the cause of economic inclusion—sociologist William J. Wilson is the best example here—appeared to accept the idea that affirmative action benefited a small already-privileged stratum of the black community.
MacLean tells the story of the fight for economic inclusion as a kabuki dance of three sets of players: grassroots organizers and activists, institutional reformers, and the established interests of business and government. The first two groups played off of each other's strength; the activists created the facts on the ground that gave leverage to the lawyers and policy types who promoted institutional [End Page 209] reform while the successes of the reformers opened up new opportunities for organizing. The interaction of the two with 'the establishment' was a good deal more complicated. On the one hand, MacLean tells the story of Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ruth Bader who moved from institutional reformer to part of the establishment. On the other hand, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers seemed...