The civil rights movement flourished at the zenith of American economic expansion and at a point where the previous great wave of immigration was decades in the past. Both in terms of economics and identity, the majority was better primed to be magnanimous than at any time prior or since.
Projected demographic changes are heralded as an opportunity for advancement, based on the presumption that a majority-minority society will more easily embrace the ideals of equality. But that may well not be the case.
A democracy in which the traditionally empowered class is outnumbered is traditionally a less liberal place, not more. (A great example of this is the fact that Barack Obama suffered the widest margins of defeat in the states where whites have the smallest majority of the population.)
It’s no coincidence that the super-heated opposition to immigration reform coincides with the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, and with public opinion polls in which a substantial number of whites say they believe they are the primary victims of racism in the United States. If anything, demographic trends will intensify these dynamics.
Thus civil rights in the future will be less easily distinguishable from other issues not traditionally associated with that cause. There’s long been overlap between civil rights causes that affect black populations and Latino populations. At the most optimistic this will be a moment at which staggering economic disparities and wage stagnation facilitate a broader economic movement, of the type that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned toward the end of his life.
At worst, we’ll confront a calcifying system in which rights and wealth accrue even more disproportionately to a white plurality, creating a version of this country that looks more like South Africa in the 1980s than the fabled beloved community King lived and died for.
Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history and the director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is a contributor to The New Yorker online and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”
You do not have to agree with everything he says to admit that he has raised some interesting points. I don’t see apartheid South Africa in the future — that is going too far. But a comparison with modern Brazil is not far-fetched. He is neglecting the impact of all these new “diverse” immigrants on the American blacks. They are not necessarily going to be all that magnanimous themselves.