When the Color of America Changed: Civil Rights and Immigration Reform

Signing of the Immigration ActSigning of the Immigration Act, October 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto. Collection of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.

To understand the entanglement of growing diversity and entrenched inequality requires a look backward to the last critical juncture in American history when notions of race and citizenship, diversity and tolerance shifted—the civil rights revolution.

Within a few years in the mid-1960s, America’s long-standing racial order, one that systematically privileged whites, saw its legislative and legal underpinnings crumble. In July 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed landmark civil rights legislation, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, religion, and age. That legislation was a first step. In 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act; in 1968, he and Congress drafted and enacted a law that forbade discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.

Johnson’s civil rights laws were not self-enforcing: their success depended on executive orders, federal regulations, and voluntary efforts to break down racial barriers, not to mention the efforts of civil rights groups and often-disruptive protestors to press for change. Nearly every element of the civil rights revolution met with fierce opposition and resistance, as judges, politicians, and policy makers attempted to weaken or roll back civil rights laws, and as ordinary citizens fought against what many called “forced” integration, whether it be efforts to open housing markets, desegregate public schools, or diversify work places and colleges. Still, Johnson’s law signaled a robust national commitment to the ideals of formal equality and contributed to unprecedented—if often halting—diversification of labor markets, institutions of higher education, and some neighborhoods and schools.

A half century ago, America’s color also began to change. In October 1965, at a ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Act, which lifted immigration restrictions that favored newcomers from northern and western Europe. That year, close to nine in ten Americans were white. The percentage of foreign-born in the United States was at a near low. Unless you lived in California’s Central Valley or along the Rio Grande, or found yourself in a handful of neighborhoods like New York’s East Harlem, Miami’s Little Havana, or East Los Angeles, Hispanics were mostly invisible. The Asian-descended population was vanishingly small, clustered in a few Chinatowns, Little Manilas, and a handful of other enclaves, only a few outside of California.

“The land flourished,” stated Johnson, “because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” What Johnson had not anticipated was that the nation would be nourished by new cultures and traditions, fewer with European origins. Fifty years after Johnson took office, there were more than 41 million foreign-born people living in the United States, most of them from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.

This post was excerpted and adapted from Thomas Sugrue’s essay “Less Separate, Still Unequal: Diversity and Equality in ‘Post-Civil Rights’ America” in Our Compelling Interests (Princeton University Press, 2016).

 
 

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