How — and to whom — should America distribute its resources? Who gets to be American? Those were the questions roiling the country 40 years ago this week when Morning Edition debuted. It’s a time frame that encompasses most of post-civil rights America, and many of the issues that gripped the nation in 1979 are still being debated today.
But some of those issues have mutated in unexpected ways and are playing out in a country that has grown steadily browner, and more queer.
Here is our survey of some of the major issues involving race and identity from the past 40 years.
During those first weeks of November 1979, Pittsburgh had just approved a plan to integrate its schools via busing. And busing was the unspoken subtext of the mayoral race in Boston, where opposition to integration through the decade had turned violent.
Around the country, cities and counties were reckoning with the logistics and politics of integrating their schools in the name of equity. With some distance, it’s clear that the opponents of busing effectively won those battles; American schools are more segregated now than at any point since the 1960s.
Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times wrote this summer that efforts to frame continued segregation as a “failure of busing” obscure how organized and intentional the opposition was.
“The same people who claim they are not against integration, just busing as the means, cannot tell you what tactic they would support that would actually lead to wide-scale desegregation,” she wrote. “It is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988. But at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened.”
The political fallout from those battles has had a long shelf life. During the Democratic debates this summer, Joe Biden (the Democratic front-runner) was called out for his previous vocal opposition to busing by Sen. Kamala Harris, who as a child was bused to her public school.
In 1979, as now, the country was gearing up for a presidential election that would shape the next decade of American life. Ronald Reagan, the Republican vying for the presidential nomination, was trying to stitch together a coalition made up of religious conservatives and opponents of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. (Reagan, who had been a critic of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 because he thought it was unfair to the South, dogwhistled to anti-integrationists by stumping for “states rights” in Mississippi not far from where three voting rights activists had been killed the decade prior.) But after he won the White House, his administration would grant blanket legalization to millions of people living in America without legal documentation.
Indeed, Reagan’s vice president and successor in the White House, George H.W. Bush, staked out the same moderate position on immigration. (In 1990, he signed a bill into law that would ease the restrictions on undocumented people whose relatives had been legalized by Reagan’s amnesty.)
“The Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush was a party that was saying, ‘we can lock up the Latino vote,’ ” Maria Hinojosa, the host of Latino USA, told Morning Edition.
To win over white voters who were beginning to defect from the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton positioned himself to the right of Bush and Reagan on immigration. Clinton ran on cracking down on illegal immigration, and in 1996 he signed a bill into law that made it harder for people to become legal citizens while making it easier for them to be deported. Deportation went from a relatively rare outcome for undocumented people to a more common one.
George W. Bush — again, a Republican — followed Bill Clinton in the White House and seriously considered loosening restrictions on undocumented migrant workers in the United States. He met with Vicente Fox, then-president of Mexico, to discuss the issue, which had considerable political upside on both sides of the southern border. “Bush envisions Republican victories in 2004 and beyond if the party can boost its share of the growing Latino vote; and Fox believes migration is an issue that can re-energize his sagging presidency back home,” Robert S. Leiken wrote for Brookings in 2001. “In a sense, they are trying to ride each other’s coattails.”
But the date on that pending meeting proved to be inauspicious: Sept. 2, 2001. Just weeks later, the Bush administration would adopt a more comprehensively aggressive posture toward immigrants and foreigners in the United States as the country began the march toward wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Undocumented immigrants would be rounded up in the name of national security, and travel in and out of the United States became more closely policed.
Deportation counts are complicated numbers, but the Obama administration would continue along this same trajectory that began during the Clinton years, setting records for deportations from the United States. Today, opposition to immigration is a defining feature of the Republican Party — when just a few decades ago, it was not hard to find elected Republicans who were more liberal on immigration than Democrats.
Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, would have been unthinkable just a generation ago. The public perception of queer people had shifted dramatically: In 1994, most Americans thought homosexuality should not be accepted. By 2017, about 70% felt it should.
And Gen Zers, the generation that follows millennials, are both more likely to identify as queer and are much more likely to say they know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun than any generation before them.
The story of rising queer acceptance over the past four decades is often told triumphantly — like a parade of dramatic legal and political victories — or in a way that suggests that acceptance has been equally enjoyed. Gen Xers and millennials, who came of age in a post-AIDS world, learned about and discussed sex and sexuality in fundamentally different ways than baby boomers and the Greatest Generation.
More prominent, less vulnerable Americans — Ellen DeGeneres, as one major example — were coming out. And in 2003, Lawrence v. Texas, a landmark Supreme Court case that effectively decriminalized homosexuality, softened the ground for later gay-rights goals, such as same-sex marriage.
But it’s worth looking back on how precarious life was and continues to be for many LGBTQIA people. In the early 1980s, outbreaks of what was initially — and disparagingly — called “gay plague” began popping up all over the country. The Reagan administration’s early inaction helped those early outbreaks explode into the AIDS crisis, which would define the politics of queer life. (Reagan’s onetime friend, the movie star Rock Hudson, would die of the disease; the Reagans did not respond to requests from Hudson’s family for help.) The fear of the poorly understood disease would help further stigmatize queer communities. Some religious conservatives attributed the disease to God’s wrath for their supposed sinfulness. (The AIDS crisis has gone on to become increasingly racialized; in recent years, black and Latinx men and black women represent the majority of new diagnoses.)
This, of course, coincided with Clinton-era policies such as “don’t-ask-don’t-tell,” which effectively forced queer service members to hide their identities lest they lose their careers, and Clinton’s signature of the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, and the hate crimes bill it helped catalyze, helped shape legal arguments around sexual orientation — that gay people constituted a protected legal class.