African American Life in Reagan's America

Ronald Reagan’s America presented African Americans with a series of contradictions. Blacks achieved significant advances in politics, culture, and socio-economic status. African Americans continued a trend from the late 1960s and 1970s by gaining control of municipal governments during the 1980s. In 1983, voters in Philadelphia and Chicago elected Wilson Goode and Harold Washington, respectively, as their cities’ first black mayors. At the national level, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson became the first African American man to run for president when he campaigned for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1984 and 1988. Propelled by chants of “Run, Jesse, Run,” Jackson achieved notable success in 1988, winning nine state primaries and finishing second with 29% of the vote.

Reverend Jesse Jackson Jesse Jackson was only the second African American to mount a national campaign for the presidency. His work as a civil rights activist and Baptist minister garnered him a significant following in the African American community, but never enough to secure the Democratic nomination. His Warren K. Leffler, “IVU w/ [i.e., interview with] Rev. Jesse Jackson,” July 1, 1983. Library of Congress.
The excitement created by Jackson’s campaign mirrored the acclaim received by a few prominent African Americans in media and entertainment. Comedian Eddie Murphy rose to stardom on television’s Saturday Night Live, and achieved box office success with movies like 48 Hours andBeverly Hills Cop. In 1982 pop singer Michael Jackson released Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. Oprah Winfrey began her phenomenally successful nationally syndicated talk show in 1985. Comedian Bill Cosby’s sitcom about an African American doctor and lawyer raising their four children drew the highest ratings on television for most of the decade. The popularity of The Cosby Show revealed how class informed perceptions of race in the 1980s. Cosby’s fictional TV family represented the growing number of black middle-class professionals in the United States. Indeed, income for the top fifth of African American households increased faster than that of white households for most of the decade.Middle-class African Americans found new doors open to them in the 1980s, but poor and working-class blacks faced continued challenges. During Reagan’s last year in office the African American poverty rate stood at 31.6%, as opposed to 10.1% for whites. Black unemployment remained double that of whites throughout the decade. By 1990, the median income for black families was $21,423, 42% below white households. The Reagan administration did little to address such disparities and in many ways intensified them. Furthermore, the New Right threatened the legal principles and federal policies of the rights revolution and the Great Society. Reagan appointed conservative opponents of affirmative action to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) and the Civil Rights Commission while sharply reduced their funding and staffing levels. Federal spending cuts disproportionately affected AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch, and job training programs that provided crucial support to African American households. In 1982 the National Urban League’s annual “State of Black America” report concluded that “[n]ever [since the first report in 1976]…has the state of Black America been more vulnerable. Never in that time have black economic rights been under such powerful attack.”The stigma of violent crime also hung over African American communities during the Reagan years. Homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between 15 and 24, occurring at a rate six times higher than for other Americans. Nonetheless, sensationalistic media reports encouraged widespread anxiety about black-on-white crime in big cities. Ironically, such fear could by itself spark violence. In December 1984 a thirty-seven-year-old white engineer, Bernard Goetz, shot and seriously wounded four black teenagers on a New York City subway car. The so-called “Subway Vigilante” suspected the young men—armed with screwdrivers—planned to rob him. Pollsters found that 90% of white New Yorkers sympathized with Goetz. Race relations often seemed more polarized than ever during the 1980s.The attempts by the Reagan administration to roll back affirmative action and shrink welfare programs did not always succeed. By the end of the decade, “diversity” programs were firmly entrenched in private sector employment. Nonetheless, Reagan’s policies and rhetoric had altered the course of racial politics in the United States. Full economic and social equality remained elusive for African Americans in the 1980s.

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