Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace

The 1964 Civil Rights Act altered not only the political landscape of America but also its social and economic underpinnings. Though viewed as a government intervention on the behalf of African Americans, the 1964 act included a prohibition against sexual discrimination in admissions and employment. Placed in the bill as a “poison pill”, the clause banning sex discrimination came to be one of its most significant features, yet its effects were not isolated to gender. Focusing on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Nancy MacLean’s Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace explores shifting language, alliances, and identities of the various peoples vying for employment post 1964. Tracing the rise of the conservative and neoconservative movements in relation to their respective Chicano, Civil Rights, and Feminist counterparts , Maclean’s work illustrates the broad societal changes that unfolded once the 1964 acts came to be enforced.
Maclean begins decades earlier in the 1940s, establishing the various alliances and organizations involved in the civil rights movement. Jews and Blacks allied to protest discrimination by which each felt affected. As evidenced by its most prominent organizations such as the G.I. Forum and Latinos of United Latin American Citizens , Mexican Americans at the time attempted to associate themselves more closely with whiteness. Title VII changed much of this. As the 1964 acts implications emerged, its effects (though admittedly blunted by a fluctuating government commitment) served to reorganize the relational identities of Jews, Blacks, Chicanos, whites, and women. Now the government appeared attentive to minority needs especially those of African Americans. Arguing that the Civil Rights movement and feminism lacked a natural affinity, Maclean suggests Title VII reoriented this relationship “it did not solve the sameness versus difference dilemma but did alter its terms so as to allow the diminution of the old conflicts”. Similar developments emerged among Mexican Americans. If prior to Title VII, the Mexican American community attempted to align itself with whites, Title VII freed them to openly embrace their heritage “now they could position themselves as the “brown” counterpart to blacks in vigorous assertions of their right to good jobs”, thus changing their previous “isolated assmilationist approach.
Unfortunately, Title VII did not engender universal agreement. By the 1970s, many Jewish agencies decried The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW)’s attempts to enforce Title VII. Such organizations argued Title VII led to “reverse discrimination”, depriving Jews of employment in exchange for less qualified individuals through “quotas”. The issuing of the famous Hoffman letter articulating these concerns enabled the conservative and neoconservative movements, already unhappy over Title VII, to court an increasingly right leaning Jewish American constituency .
Writers such as Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley employed the language of civil rights anti-racism to draw Asian, Jewish, and white working class supporters to their cause. Similar to the Black middle class female reformers of Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow who utilized the language of hygiene, cleanliness, and disease to encourage white female reformers to spearhead municipal attention to black neighborhoods while laying the foundation for future interracial alliances, neoconservatives performed a similar feat with its appropriation of civil rights anti-racism rhetoric to draw disgruntled constituencies.
Debates over Title VII often proved deceiving. For example, conservatives, neoconservatives, and other opponents often spoke of “quotas” created as fundamentally racist, implementing “reverse discrimination” while also providing jobs to inferior or incompetent minorities. However, in reality Title VII supporters claimed, the civil rights law never instituted any sort of quota system nor did it reward incompetency. Instead, it provided employment to equally qualified individuals, “the debate was not really over the “qualified” versus the “unqualified”; it was over the “best qualified” versus the “also qualified.” By framing the debate along an either/or binary, conservatives cast negative associations to those hired as result of the legislation. Moreover, debates over the bill’s affect on the hiring of minorities overshadowed its larger impact on gender, thus distorting the discussion. Again, conservatives and neoconservatives latched on to the racial antipathy over Title VII’s perceived favoritism, enabling it to expand its reach to working class whites, Asians, and Jews.
Even when gender served as the its primary focus, large corporations and others struggled to fulfill their legal obligations. Additionally, agreement among women over what constituted employer discrimination did always coalesce. Ruth Milkman’s “Women’s History and the Sears Case” examined the 1986 Sears Roebuck verdict and how two respected women’s historians became adversaries in the court room. Testimonies given by Ruth Rosenberg and Alice Kessler Harris served as expert opinions on the efforts of Sears to meet the equal employment requirements of the 1964 bill. The debate that emerged between Kessler Harris and Rosenberg animated discussions among women’s historians around the political role and obligations of the profession. Kessler Harris and Rosenberg cast aspersions on aspects on the work of their opponent which led to tension within the field itself. Moreover, questions arose regarding the place of history in nuance-free environments like court rooms.
Ultimately, MacLean’s work illustrates the shifting political, economic, and social alliances that Title VII’s provisions fueled. Ironically, just as jobs in industry opened, deindustrialization took them away. Likewise, many women and minorities began to exhibit more loyalty to professional identities than race or gender while former grassroots movements such as NOW shifted from protest to advocacy. Such developments contributed to “professionalization” among women and minorities.
Maclean’s work hopes to contrast recent histories that had ignored “work organizations” like the Urban League while reevaluating, more positively, the contributions of organizations like NOW and the NAACP whom more radical historians have criticized as “liberal elitists”, thus, contributing to conservative caricatures. Though somewhat unevenly, Freedom is Not Enough provides social, intellectual, and organizational histories. However, it proves weakest in its social history approach. MacLean’s microhistories of southern textile plant workers and newly hired female construction workers illustrate unexpected results but seem somewhat out of place with much of the rest of the work which focuses primarily on organizational leadership and intellectual debates around Title VI’s implementation. Moreover, at times, these microhistories give the reader a sense of greater gender and racial integration that in fact occurred. Finally, Maclean’s presentation of the Chicano movements relational shift in identity suggests that Title VII served as the primary catalyst, but some historians (Louis Alvarez, Danny Widener) might argue cultural connections established in the 1940s such as through zoot culture or rock n’ roll laid the foundation for this shift. Along with immigration policies of the 1950s, most notably Operation Wetback, even traditional Mexican American organizations such as LULAC or GI Forum reconsidered their approaches to identity. Still, MacLean’s work clearly illustrates the wide ranging changes brought by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its Title VII clause.

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