How Identity Has Changed — And Hasn't — Over 40 Years Of 'Morning Edition'

Nov 8, 2019
Originally published on November 8, 2019 10:20 am

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.

Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy share a rocking chair presented to them during their visit to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. The Reagans' visit marked the first time a major party nominee had ever addressed the fair.
Bettmann Archive

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.

LGBTQIA rights

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.

Same-sex marriage supporters rejoice after the U.S Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 26, 2015.
Alex Wong / Getty Images

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.

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All this week, we have been looking back at 40 years of MORNING EDITION through the lens of, among other things, politics, science and culture. Today, we're taking a look at race and identity and how conversations about those things have and have not changed over the last 40 years. I'm joined by Maria Hinojosa, the host of Latino USA. Hi, Maria.


KING: And Gene Demby, who's the co-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast. Hi, Gene.


KING: All right. So, you guys, question to you both. Forty years of race and culture - there is a lot to talk about there - where do you want to start?

HINOJOSA: (Laughter) A lot.

DEMBY: I mean, there's, like, a bewildering number of stories to tell about race and, you know, flashpoints around policing, these tectonic cultural shifts, like the rise of hip-hop. We should probably just zero in on a few things that were making headlines in 1979 that we're still sort of grappling with today, like back when MORNING EDITION was starting, you know, cities and counties all over the country were still trying to figure out how to do school integration. There were these big fights over busing. And it's safe to say that the anti-integration forces effectively won that fight. I mean, today in 2019, American schools by most measures are more segregated now than they were in the '60s.

HINOJOSA: So there's something else that was going on. In 1980, the United States was about 83% white. Today, it's estimated about 72% white. You know, some people call it the browning of America. People who are part of that browning - I don't know if they like that term, but that has been a central part of what's happened over these couple of decades.

KING: So 40 years ago in 1979, Americans were getting ready to vote for president. How was race playing out at that point in that race?

DEMBY: Well, as Maria pointed out, the electorate was obviously much whiter than it is today. And Ronald Reagan was courting a much whiter mainstream. He famously - or infamously, depending on who you ask - gave a speech defending states' rights at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Neshoba County was about seven miles from where three civil rights activists were killed in Mississippi.


RONALD REAGAN: I believe in states' rights. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today.

DEMBY: That tape's a little fuzzy there, but he was talking about states' rights, and states' rights, of course, was a code word for segregationists. And he was speaking to anti-integration sentiment in the South.

KING: You know, I think a lot of people forget that President Ronald Reagan put in place a blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants way back in 1986.


REAGAN: I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.

KING: Maria, that sounds extraordinary when you think about it today.

HINOJOSA: Well, this is a really fascinating conversation because, you know, if you think about the Republican Party now, it has won on an anti-immigrant build a wall, you know, immigrants and refugees are dangerous people. The Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and of George H.W. Bush was really a party that was saying we think we could lock up the Latino vote. And one of the ways to do that was to be very open on immigration. George H.W. Bush father (ph) - when he comes in, he actually ups the number of refugees, the opposite of what the Republican Party is doing now. And interestingly, then Bill Clinton comes in and was actually very anti-immigrant. There's this commercial where he comes out saying, you know, like, I'm going to take care of these illegal immigrants. I'm going to cut - you know, I'm going to come down hard.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: President Clinton doubled border agents; 160,000 illegal immigrants and criminals deported - a record.

KING: Bill Clinton, in many ways, was running to the right of President George H.W. Bush.

HINOJOSA: That's absolutely true. But, you know, something happens that really shifts the conversation on immigration, and that's September 11. So, you know, it would have been that George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were about to sign this massive immigration legislation that would have, again, legalized so many people. It would have probably locked in the Latino vote for the Republican Party except that September 11 happened.

KING: And so we move forward couple of years, and we have this massive, massive, massive, massive thing happen, which is this country elects a black president. And then everything's OK.

DEMBY: (Laughter) If only.

KING: I'm sorry.

DEMBY: Yeah. Things don't magically get better for people of color just because we have a black president. In fact, Obama's election in some ways might have elevated the sense of frustration for some people of color, especially black people. So a historian told me about this theory in social science. It's called the revolution of rising expectations. So in the 1960s, you get intense uprisings in inner cities in the years following landmark civil rights bills, like the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and you flash-forward to 2014 when a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shoots an unarmed African American 18-year-old, and the protests that erupted after that were incredibly powerful.

And this all happened when we had a black president, which probably was an important part of the context of those protests in places like Ferguson and in New York after the death of Eric Garner because there was a sense that things was supposed to be different. And they weren't different. Many Latinx people were frustrated as well because Obama became known as the deporter in chief as undocumented immigrants were deported in record numbers.

HINOJOSA: Right. Obama ends up taking Bill Clinton's enforcement policy on steroids - again, kind of having to say I'm not going to take the label of being weak on these issues of, let's say, crime or immigration. And, again, that legacy leads to where we are now.

DEMBY: But, Noel, it wasn't all bad news.


BARACK OBAMA: I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

DEMBY: You probably remember that when Obama first got elected, he supported civil unions but not same-sex marriage. And in his second term, his position had, quote, "evolved" and the Supreme Court goes on to uphold same-sex marriage. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that among Gen Z-ers (ph), which is the generation that comes after millennials, about a third of them say they know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun to identify themselves.

HINOJOSA: Right. Really, the last 40 years in terms of the LGBTQ community has been, like, an explosion from, again, total kind of invisibility to now, you know, legalization of gay marriage. And immigrants are actually taking cues from the LGBTQ struggle and saying we're coming out of the closet. We're saying we're undocumented, and we're unafraid. That has happened over the last 40 years. It really is extraordinary.

DEMBY: And, Noel, what's striking to me is just how many of these conversations that Americans were having in 1979, we are still having today. I mean, we still have not figured out how we make schools equitable - right? - across races. We're still deciding basic questions, like who gets to be American, right?

KING: Yeah. Yeah.

DEMBY: And so in 40 years, we're going to be grappling with what that looks like in a country in which most of the people, most of the Gen Z-ers, are not white. We could very much have a country that is majority brown with most of the country's wealth living with white people. We could still be wrestling with the same inequality even if numerically it looks a lot different. So I hope in 40 years, we've at least made progress in resolving some of these questions that have bedeviled us, like, since the beginning of the republic.

KING: Gene Demby is the co-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast. And Maria Hinojosa is host of the Latino USA podcast. Thank you guys both so much. We really appreciate it.

HINOJOSA: Thank you, Noel.

DEMBY: Appreciate you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.