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John D. Skrentny, The Minority Rights Revolution (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2002, $35.00, 473 pages, ISBN 0-674-00899-5)—Guillaume Marche, Université de Paris 12


John D. Skrentny’s book The Minority Rights Revolution—originally published in 2002 and updated in 2004 (ISBN 0-674-01618-1)—provides a synthesis of the development of anti-discrimination and equal-opportunity government policies for minorities in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and in the context of the Cold War in the years 1965-1975. Skrentny seeks to identify the main factor in the unprecedented, consistent effort by policymakers of every political persuasion in the period to guarantee equal opportunity for minorities through a wide array of policies ranging from the ban on discrimination to preferential treatment.

Skrentny hypothesizes that the dynamic originated neither in the overall historical and political context, nor in the minority groups’ mass-mobilization or lobbying, but in the meaning with which some minority groups came to be invested. He more precisely claims that the crucial meaning, which minority groups need to attain in order to be granted official recognition and protection, is a solid analogy with African Americans.

To validate the hypothesis, Skrentny conducts a powerful demonstration beginning by an account of how equal opportunity for African Americans gradually came to be regarded as a matter of national security from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the Cold War. The fight for freedom in World War Two, the emergence of human rights as a universal value, and Soviet propaganda representing racial segregation as the symbol of capitalism’s defeat all created the possibility for the government to gradually ban racial segregation and discrimination from the 1954 Brown ruling to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To support the view that meaning matters more than social movements, Skrentny shows how racial categorizing in immigration policy was given up at the same time—in the 1965 Immigration Act—without mass-mobilization or lobbying, because racial equality among foreigners in immigration got to be construed as analogous to racial equality among Americans in public accommodation, housing and employment.

The author goes on to emphasize the importance of meaning by claiming that the United States refrained from extending its human-rights posture to pushing for decolonization, because alliance with Britain and other colonial powers was a more vital national security interest. But that only applied until playing up to the Soviet Union’s strategy of courting colonized nations made it a national security interest for the U.S. to take a global racial-equality stance.

From Chapter Four on the book’s focus shifts from the mere prohibition of discrimination to the set of actual, unprecedented policies meant to guarantee equal opportunity known as affirmative action. Skrentny shows that the advent of affirmative action resulted, not from mass mobilization or lobbying, but from a by then well-established sense in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that African Americans deserved efforts toward their equal proportional representation in the workforce, and from a growing notion that—though meant for blacks—Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act must apply to other ethnic or racial groups that had already been identified as minorities by the EEOC. It was not Mexicans, Indians or Asians who demanded inclusion in the Title VII enforcement programs meant for blacks; it was rather the executive branch of government which took it for granted that they were analogous to blacks and should therefore be treated accordingly.

The inclusion of women is a somewhat trickier case, because it proved less easy to establish a firm analogy with blacks, so that designating women as a minority for affirmative action raised more controversy—in the wake of the 1964 addition of sex discrimination to Title VII—than the inclusion of Latinos, even as there was more mobilization of advocates for the former than for the latter. This discrimination against women was being dealt with in a jocular manner well into the 1970s, even though the EEOC had by then opted for an impact—rather than intent-based approach to discrimination, Skrentny argues, proves that their status as a victimized group was not as firmly established as African Americans’ or Latinos’... In fact, although Latino advocates themselves emphasized their specificities as much as their analogy to blacks, there was very little challenge to their status as an ethno-racial minority worthy of preferential treatment, as the discrepancy between the Office of Federal Contract Compliance’s (OFCC) handling of affirmative action in federal contracts for women and for Latinos illustrates. The comparison effectively tends to prove that the black analogy is indeed more critical toward gaining minority protection than social movement in particular.

Skrentny then (Chapter Five) focuses on another facet of affirmative action—the promotion of minority capitalism—to highlight the fact that the Nixon administration engineered the inclusion of Latinos in the programs developed under Section 8 (a) of the Small Business Act and by the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (OMBE) as a way of courting Spanish-speaking Americans’ votes in preparation for the 1972 election. The book here draws a clear distinction between prior inclusion of groups other than African Americans, and the Nixon team’s “coalition-building calculus” [153] to point to what he terms “anticipatory politics”: the Nixon administration strove to develop Latino capitalism along with African American capitalism because they took it for granted that Latino voters would like it and would in turn vote for the Republican party, even as Latino leaders mainly demanded government jobs—not business opportunities. Though what matters in this case is not the black analogy, here again meaning proves of more import than social movement, as Latinos by then meant an electoral boon.

After a shorter chapter devoted to affirmative action in university admissions—an oft-studied topic which entails less government action than other forms of affirmative action—illustrating the spread of non-black minorities’ meaning as deserving preferential treatment. Chapters Seven and Eight provide a detailed comparison of legislative enactment and executive implementation of bilingual education for limited English proficiency (LEP) children under the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, and of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Education in, and maintenance of languages other than English were originally construed during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies as a national-security and human rights issue—promoting international understanding so as to further strong alliances against the Soviets on the one hand and world peace on the other hand. These meanings were later reinforced during the Nixon presidency by the precedent of specific ethno-racial targeting for blacks and by the prospect of winning Latino votes... Skrentny accounts for the Latino interest group’s lack of consistent organizing and argues that this was no impediment to the relatively quiet implementation of bilingual education policies by the department of Health, Education and Welfare’s (HEW) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) because the African American precedent had already legitimized accommodating difference, and because this pro-Latino stance was meant to counterbalance the Nixon team’s anti-busing stance—as part of the “Southern strategy” of winning southern Democratic votes by putting a break on affirmative racial integration for blacks. That Latinos were at once similar to, and different from African Americans thus paradoxically proved no obstacle to their inclusion in the minority rights revolution: they could at once be racialized as analogous to blacks, and be endowed with a complementary meaning as potential voters, as part of an anticipatory politics.

Whereas women’s formal inclusion in the minority rights revolution in education was relatively easy from a legislative point of view, women’s advocates—unlike Latinos’—had to fight hard for the actual implementation of legislative decisions: chapter 8 examines this puzzle by detailing the two processes. Debates in Congress indeed focused on whether women deserved equal opportunity policies in education, and the eventual answer was yes, because they suffered institutional discrimination that was similar enough to that faced by blacks that it should appear politically legitimate to try and do away with that inequality—especially after the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972, though it was never ratified, legitimized equality rather than special protection for women. The implementation stage however revealed how problematic it was to reconcile gender equality with the necessary continuation of gender segregation in sports in particular. Intense lobbying by women’s groups could not prevent loose enforcement of Title IX, because the meaning prevailed that women were after all rather different from blacks. Thus, whereas Latinos had sufficiently been racialized as similar to blacks for their specificities not to appear contradictory with the black analogy, “cognitive failure of the analogy between women and blacks create[d] fear, indecision, or lack of concern” [260].

The final chapter of the book begins by examining how minority rights were extended to the disabled because the African American precedent had made it legitimate to grant equal rights to groups perceived to be at a disadvantage, and had further created legislative templates—viz. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—and a “politicians’ repertoire for addressing a group that they then saw as analogous to black Americans” [270]. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was thus passed, without social movement mass-mobilization or lobbying, as an instance of anticipatory politics. But as with women the black analogy faltered at the implementation stage, so that the cost and complexity of Section 504’s enforcement prevailed in the eyes of policymakers: it was therefore “an extralegal, culture-based principle” [274] which secured legislation, whereas political considerations limited its actual impact. Skrentny then analyzes the case of white ethnics to prove that social movement lobbying has less political weight than group meaning: despite active lobbying and a prevailing perception that they were disadvantaged and made up a valuable electoral reserve, white ethnics did not gain significant minority rights, firstly due to the fact that they were not thought to have suffered as much as women, Asians, Latinos, and American Indians—let alone blacks... Secondly they were not as readily racialized as Latinos, since they could be targeted as a socio-economic constituency, or as a “Middle American” constituency, or as a mostly Catholic constituency. This multifaceted identity and polysemous subjective meaning explains why they failed to be included in the minority rights revolution despite having every objective reason to. Skrentny reinforces his point by briefly examining why gays, too were left out despite being perceived to be beyond the “undebated threshold of victimization and discrimination that shaped federal policy” [314], and despite social movement mobilization. This is due to the group’s unfavorable meaning, so that anticipatory politics made politicians wary of supporting this group since they expected that it would deprive them of other constituencies’ support.

The Minority Rights Revolution impresses by its detailed analyses and the consistency of its overall argument: the significance of non-political, cultural meaning in American politics and policymaking is not only exemplified, the author actually devotes great informational and rhetorical resources to proving that the specificity of the minority rights revolution is that meaning matters more than other, traditional factors. The book is of great interest to political scientists for this innovative thesis, and for the detailed account of the various stages and processes in sometimes overlooked aspects of the development of rights for minority groups, whose various facets appear to result from a consistent—if not concerted—shift in politics and policy in the late twentieth century. Historians will appreciate the author’s great attention to context and chronology, and his extensive use of a wide variety of primary sources—minutes from meetings, administrative memos and briefs, congressional records, letters and subsequent interviews with actors of what Skrentny means to prove was indeed a revolution. The book is also particularly stimulating for sociologists thanks to its challenging hypothesis as to the role of social movements, and more generally civil society, in influencing the course of interactions among social groups. The author’s reasoning may in fact appear a bit mechanistic in its expounding of the black analogy hypothesis, since he never quite stops to raise the question of the very validity, or legitimacy of the black analogy: though his claim that perceptions are in effect more consequential than reality may apply to the workings of political decision-making and policy-implementation, readers with a sociological turn of mind may be frustrated by not learning more about actual group self-perceptions in particular. Skrentny’s analysis of the minority rights power calculus likewise leaves little room for a clear understanding of where the so consequential meanings he analyzes originated from: though he does for example account for the fact that the 1954 Brown ruling resulted from long-term, intense campaigning on the part of the NAACP, or for the women’s movement role in shaping the climate of government policy toward women, the fact that group meanings are the object of conflicts in which social movements play an active part escapes Skrentny’s discussion. Of immense interest for sociologists interested in identity problematics are however his recurrent comments on the discrepancy between ethnic groups’ (specifically Latinos’ and Asians’) perceived homogeneity and their actual heterogeneity—an important element in his claim that policy creates minorities rather than the reverse.

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