Equity, Growth and Socioeconomic Change: Anti-Discrimination Policy in an Era of Economic Transformation


Advocates of anti-discrimination policy currently confront a hostile landscape. Attacks on federal civil rights efforts have resulted in a revamping of the United States Civil Rights Commission, attempts by the government to grant tax benefits to racially segregated schools, and briefs filed by the Justice Department trying to overturn consent decrees for racial integration, decrees negotiated earlier by that same department. Racial gaps in family income are growing. The United States now has the highest level of poverty since 1965, and there is disturbing evidence that incomes are becoming more and more polarized. Inner city unemployment, especially among minority youth, remains at depression-era levels, while the national unemployment rate has only recently dropped below eight percent, in the midst of an economic recovery. Recent studies suggest that persistent pay gaps between men and women are growing, in spite of women’s increased education and training.

This article discusses recent changes in American socioeconomic structure, in order to consider the role of anti-discrimination policy in a time of economic and social change. Through a review of occupational and industrial employment trends, changes in household composition, and recent social policy, we call attention to the dramatic change in public policy and in the political climate for anti-discrimination efforts. Although some of this change is a direct outcome of Reagan administration policies, many of the trends we discuss precede his administration and are likely to persist for the remainder of the decade.

How Americans view the interaction between economic prosperity and social equity is our major theme. In the 1960’s, economic growth and increased social equity were seen as mutually reinforcing, a view which has since become discredited. As the economy stagnated, Americans questioned the harmonious pairing of growth and equity, leading to the current climate in which government policies to increase social equity are seen as harmful, possibly fatal, to economic prosperity. This transformation of the political debate creates a difficult atmosphere for advocates of anti-discrimination policy, an atmosphere that will not be improved until a convincing counter-argument is made that economic growth and social equity can coexist and mutually foster each other.

We do not present that argument here, for we also think that merely asserting the compatibility of prosperity and equity is not sufficient. Socioeconomic conditions in the United States are in the midst of rapid and confusing shifts, and until we understand these changes, a broader argument about growth and equity will elude us. As a result, contemporary political debate remains dominated by those who see prosperity and equity as opposed. By reviewing anti-discrimination efforts and federal economic policy, outlining recent socioeconomic dynamics, and briefly considering affirmative action, unionization, efforts to control capital mobility, and comparable worth strategies, we hope to stimulate discussion on how anti-discrimination efforts can be reinvigorated in coming years.

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Panel I: Defund Means Defund Andrea Ritchie (she/her) is a Black lesbian immigrant whose writing, litigation, and advocacy has focused on policing of women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades. She is currently a researcher with