Topics in the News
The New Reality.
Identified in 1981, the incurable disease known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) has had a major impact on American society. As ignorance and misunderstanding of the inevitably fatal disease—most commonly transmitted by intravenous drug use and sexual activity—gradually gave way to fuller knowledge, the number of reported cases in the United States rose from 225 in 1981 to 40,000 in 1987. By the end of the decade hundreds of thousands of Americans were known to be infected; it looked as if the nation were in the midst of an epidemic; and thousands of people began to transform their lifestyles in accordance with the new reality.
In 1980 doctors in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco began noticing patients who were dying because their immune systems had been rendered inoperative, making them susceptible to opportunistic infections. Researchers eventually learned that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which was recognized in 1984 as the cause of AIDS, could infect a person years before that individual developed AIDS. They also learned that carriers of HIV could infect others while the virus was incubating within their own bodies, and they determined that HIV was transmitted through body fluids, in particular blood and semen. This discovery accounted for the fact...
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The New Consumerist Chic.
In 1981 President Ronald Reagan set the tone for an upsurge in American consumerism by celebrating his inauguration with $11 million worth of pageantry and balls, signaling to the nation that glitter was back in style. First Lady Nancy Reagan was soon overseeing expensive renovations at the White House and ordering a new set of White House china that cost more than $200,000. Although none of these expensive undertakings was financed with public funds, the Reagans were criticized for displaying an ostentatious extravagance that seemed inappropriate during the economic recession than plagued the early 1980s. Yet the "small is beautiful" philosophy that had charmed some in the 1970s was put aside for good. "America is back," the president declared, and the subtext of that declaration seemed to be "shop till you drop."
Consumer Culture as New Wave.
All across the United States there was a huge assortment of goods and services to buy; and, as the president reminded Americans, the only limits they had were those they imposed on themselves. "We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl," Madonna sang; "Greed is good," declared the character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street (1987). Supply-side economists, such as George Gilder in his Wealth and Poverty (1981), promoted the idea that...
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During the 1970s the loss of the war in Vietnam sank deeply into the national consciousness, but in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and the New Right brought back into fashion the traditional virtue of patriotism. President Reagan called for renewed pride in the United States and its military might, announcing that "America is back and standing tall" as Republicans celebrated "Morning in America." The newly elected president connected to a mood in the country in which many were clearly ready to demonstrate their old-fashioned pride in being Americans. One of the first national events to unleash this new patriotic fervor was the release of the U.S. embassy hostages in Iran, minutes after the inauguration of President Reagan in January 1981. Their homecoming was cause for great national celebration, and Congress passed a joint resolution naming the first week in February "National Patriotism Week." The new mood was unmistakable, as articles with titles such as "What's Right with America" began appearing in popular magazines. In July 1981 Newsweek reported that enlistments in the military were increasing, flag sales were booming, and people were again gustily singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." This renewed patriotism was not limited to older and middle-aged citizens. A Gallup poll found that 81 percent of teenagers surveyed were "very proud" to be Americans. At...
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The Antinuclear Movement
Countdown to Doomsday.
In the early 1980s the specter of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union began to haunt the public consciousness more forcefully than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Warning of "the Soviet military threat," and calling the Soviet Union "the focus of evil in the world/' President Ronald Reagan presided over a $1.5 trillion military buildup that pointedly included new generations of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Soviet Union continued to add aggressively to its own nuclear arsenal. In the United States defense officials spoke of fighting a "protracted" nuclear war, while military strategists suggested nuclear war was "winnable." Periodically during these years, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its "Doomsday Clock," which represents the statistical probability of nuclear war, closer and closer to midnight. In a 1983 Gallup poll 40 percent of the respondents thought it likely a nuclear war would occur within ten years. In November of the same year, when ABC broadcast The Day After, a fictional dramatization of a nuclear attack on Kansas City, 100 million Americans tuned in.
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Baby Boomers Become "Yuppies"
The Rise of the Young Urban Professionals.
At the end of the 1970s Jerry Rubin, onetime radical antiwar activist, began working on Wall Street, a surprising event that the media saw as symbolic of a change taking place in the baby-boom generation: the radicals of the 1960s counterculture were growing proestablishment. Mean-while, with less publicity than Rubin, other members of the huge baby-boom generation were also revising their antiestablishment views. Faced with the energy crisis and the runaway inflation of the 1970s, many former student activists were deciding financial power and economic security were goals not to decry but to emulate. Distrust and disdain of corporate America dissipated. Careers in business, once loudly derided, grew increasingly respectable. As the recession of the early 1980s gave way to economic boom times, success American style began to occupy the pedestal baby boomers had once reserved for social justice. Raised during the great period of American prosperity and influenced by the turning inward of the "Me Decade" of the 1970s, many baby boomers responded enthusiastically in the 1980s to Republican calls for reinvigorating the U.S. economy. Gary Hart's presidential campaign in 1984 labeled these baby boomers "yuppies" (young urban professionals), and the name stuck. Frankly and unapologetically materialistic, they focused on careers and the good life promised...
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A Nationwide Concern.
Child abuse became a powerful social issue in the 1980s, generating intense media attention, heightened public concern, congressional hearings, numerous books and articles, and increased work-loads for child-protective-service (CPS) agencies. The first national studies to determine the prevalence of child abuse were conducted in 1974, and in 1979-1980 periodic National Incidence Reports were mandated by the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. In 1984 the American Humane Association (AHA) estimated that there were 1.7 million abused or neglected children in the United States. Although the methods employed in this and other studies provoked debate among experts, producing disagreement about the total numbers of abused children, there was broad agreement among professionals that the problem in America was widespread and probably growing. By 1980 nearly all states required social-service professionals who had contact with children to report any case of suspected child abuse—one factor that helped to account for the increase in reported cases. The 1988 Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect estimated that in 1986, 1.5 million children nationwide had experienced abuse or neglect. Although this estimate was slightly lower than the 1984 AHA estimate, the report emphasized that its definitions for "countable" abuse cases were strict...
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The Cocaine Crisis
A Drug Epidemic.
During the 1980s few subjects were in the news as consistently as the widespread and increasing use of cocaine in the United States. There were two main stages in this growing problem. In the first stage, during the early 1980s, many considered co-caine a harmless, even glamorous, "recreational" drug; it was the drug of choice of the famous and successful—professional athletes, celebrities in the arts and entertainment, lawyers, university professors, and Wall Street brokers—who were among the few who could afford the high black-market price of cocaine. In 1982 the National Survey on Drug Abuse found that 22 million Americans had used cocaine at one time or another. Experts debated the significance of this number; but none disputed that cocaine use was spreading rapidly, and health officials began to speak openly about a cocaine "epidemic." Even the cocaine-related death of the comedian John Belushí in 1982 tailed to dim many users' enthusiasm for the drug, and cocaine use, which had risen dramatically since the late 1970s, continued to increase. Because of its high price, it was sometimes called the "champagne of drugs," and the white powder became a sort of status symbol at yuppie parties. Such users persisted in the misconception that cocaine was nonaddictive. At this stage cocaine use seemed to be an adjunct to the "life-in-the-fast-lane" syndrome prevalent...
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In the early 1980s the initial agenda of the women's movement was carried over from the 1970s, but there was renewed opposition to that agenda, not only from traditionalist men but from antifeminist women, an opposition more influential as the decade progressed. The two triumphs of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s were the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, protecting a woman's right to choose abortion, and the congressional approval of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972. Both these victories came under heated attack in the resurgent political and social conservatism of the Reagan era. A decisive sign of the power of the backlash against the women's movement was the defeat of the ERA in 1982.
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The Homeless Crisis
Homelessness in America.
After the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s, many Americans believed that homelessness was no longer a serious problem in the United States; but in the 1980s the number of homeless Americans grew dramatically, and their plight came to be recognized as one of the leading social problems of the decade. Starting in the early 1980s homeless people—often called "street people"—became an increasingly frequent sight in New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Saint Louis; and most other major cities, as well as many smaller cities. Men and women of all ages, individuals and families from varied backgrounds and circumstances—shabbily dressed and inadequately nourished—began roaming city streets, sleeping on benches in summer and on heating grates or in crowded public shelters in winter. The sight of people who for one reason or another had "slipped between the cracks" of the system, fallen through the social safety nets designed to help those in crisis, tore at the conscience of what was still the richest country in the world, even in the recession-plagued early years of the 1980s. Estimates of the number of homeless people ranged from three hundred thousand or five hundred thousand to as many as 2 million or 3 million. Because, by definition, the homeless had no permanent addresses at which they could be contacted and...
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The Cost of Recreation in the 1980s.
In the 1980s Americans continued to find new means of escape from their work schedules and to consider these means an important investment. In 1980 total personal expenditures for recreation were $149 billion; by 1989 the figure had risen to $250 billion. In 1980 sales of sporting goods totaled nearly $17 billion; by 1989 that total had risen to $45 billion. In 1980 Broadway shows took in $143 million; by 1989 their receipts totaled $262 million. Total motion-picture receipts in 1980 were $2.7 billion; by 1989 they had risen to more than $5 billion. In 1980 Americans spent $9 billion on books; by the end of the decade they were spending more than $19 billion. The leisure and entertainment industries were bigger businesses than ever before during the 1980s. According to Margaret Ambry, in 1988 American households spent $126 billion for entertainment, and the average house-hold devoted 5 percent of its total spending to entertainment costs. Middle-aged householders accounted for 72 percent of the entertainment market. Among people ages thirty-five to forty-four, overall spending for entertainment was nearly 50 percent above average. Those in the age group forty-five to fifty-four spent 80 percent more than the average household on sporting events. House-holders younger than twenty-five spent almost four times more than the average household on tape...
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The Meese Commission on Pornography
A Conservative Look at Pornography.
On 9 July 1986 the report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography was released. For those who had followed the proceedings of the commission, the report held no surprises: the two-volume, 1,960-page document advocated stricter enforcement of existing obscenity laws and the expansion of definitions of obscenity to make more types of pornography illegal. While conservatives praised the commission's report as a step toward restoring what they perceived as the lost moral tenor of American life, publishers denounced it as an effort to undermine the First Amendment, and social scientists found fault with its use of research. Some stores pulled magazines censured by the commission from their shelves, and local communities increased efforts to crack down on sellers of pornography—even if sales clerks, rather than the owners of the stores, were the ones who were arrested.
U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese created the commission in May 1985 with the goal of finding "new ways to control the problem of pornography"—showing a conservative bias from the start, since the very perception that there was a "problem with pornography" contradicted the findings of the 1970 President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Indeed, the constitution of the committee indicated that it...
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The New Conservative Climate.
Although civil rights leaders had believed that the movement toward social and racial equality for minorities was slowing in the 1970s, the determined conservatism of the 1980s Reagan era caught them unprepared. The conservative mood that settled across some sections of the American public in this decade seemed to be a backlash against the civil rights movement that had been building since the land-mark victories of the 1960s. Many white middle-class voters found Reagan's conservatism appealing because they feared that social change in America had been too rapid and too extensive. As a candidate, Ronald Reagan had criticized school busing and affirmative action programs; as president he continued to exhibit a distaste for civil rights activism and for some of the gains that activism had achieved. During his two terms in office he met only once with the Congressional Black Caucus, and black leaders realized that, for the first time in many years, they had no real allies in the White House. Meanwhile, cuts in federal spending for such programs as food stamps and Medicaid proceeded without effective opposition, fueling the perception that the president and his administration were insensitive to issues affecting low-income and minority Americans. As the decade progressed, and civil rights policies and legislation from previous years were attacked and sometimes...
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Bloom, Allan 1930-1993
Prophet of Doom.
Each era has its prophets of doom, critics who diagnose the ills of their society in apocalyptic terms. During the 1980s Allan Bloom emerged from academic obscurity to become America's best-known advocate of a return to a classical model of higher education, a back-to-the-basics approach that saw many of the changes that had occurred in the universities since the 1960s as misguided. His critique, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (1987), was a surprise best-seller that generated a storm of controversy about such issues as cultural literacy and political correctness.
No one could have been more surprised by the success of the book than Bloom himself. His previous publications had been translations of works by Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Shakespeare's Politics (1964), written with Harry V. Jaffa. Though he had been a professor of political philosophy since 1955 at the University of Chicago, Yale University, Cornell University, the University of Toronto, and again at the University of Chicago, before the 1980s he was hardly known as a scholar, let alone as a major social critic.
Popular with students,...
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Guccione, Bob, Jr. 1956?-
A New> Spin on Things.
In 1985 Bob Guccione Jr. introduced a new magazine to the American public. While it was centered around popular music, Spin gained greater attention for its irreverent take on American culture. In this respect it was more similar to edgy, youth-oriented 1980s magazines such as Spy than to its direct competitor, Roiling Stone. "Let the Baby Boomers read Rolling Stone," Guccione seemed to be saying; "this is a magazine for Generation X."
You Can't Keep Me in Your Penthouse.
The son of the publisher of Penthouse and Omni, Guccione came into magazine publishing naturally. His parents separated in 1965, and he lived with his mother in her native England until they moved to New Jersey when he was fifteen. A high-school dropout, Guccione worked in magazine circulation and marketing before launching Spin under the Penthouse aegis with $500,000 from his father. It was a bold venture: in sharp contrast to Rolling Stone, the magazine covered unknown performers and criticized major names in the music business. At first it failed to attract enough subscribers and advertisers to turn a profit, and Guccione Sr. announced in 1987 that the magazine would cease publication. But Guccione Jr. decided to separate...
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Kuhn, Maggie 1905-1995
Founder of the Gray Panthers.
In 1970, when Maggie Kuhn turned sixty-five, her employer forced her to retire from a job she loved. Kuhn could have gotten mad. Instead, she got busy, organizing what became known as the Gray Panthers to protest not only mandatory retirement policies but also American involvement in the Vietnam War. One of the few protest organizations of the Vietnam era to survive into the 1980s, the Gray Panthers, with Kuhn at the helm, served as a model of grassroots organization for such causes as national health care, job training, and housing for the homeless. The organization was also a model of inclusiveness: though many elderly people belong to the Gray Panthers, and though it lobbies on issues important to the elderly, its members range from college students to people like Kuhn, who remained active in the Gray Panthers until her death at eighty-nine.
The Making of an Activist.
Kuhn's parents lived in Memphis, Tennessee, but moved to Buffalo, New York, so that their daughter would not grow up in a segregated society. Besides being influenced by her...
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Quigley, Joan 1927-
WHIT E HOUSE ASTROLOGER
Stranger Than Fiction.
In Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land the president of the world secretly receives advice from an astrologer. In 1988 it was learned that the wife of the president of the United States had, for some years, been consulting an astrologer concerning her husband's schedule. Nancy Reagan's unnamed "friend" was soon revealed to be San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley. Astonishment and outrage that the leader of the free world was guided in his actions by a woman who saw destiny in the stars provided the Reagan administration with one of its greatest embarrassments.
How to Become a White House Astrologer.
Quigley, who was educated at prestigious Vassar College, had been interested in astrology since she was a teenager. After college she began studying with an astrologer and writing about the subject for the magazine Seventeen. Born into a prominent San Francisco family, she returned to the city and lived a dual existence as an astrologer and socialite. A regular guest on radio and television programs, she first met Nancy Reagan in 1973 on The Merv Griffin Show. Both Reagans possessed an interest in astrology, as Ronald Reagan revealed in his 1965 autobiography Where's the Rest of Me?, but Nancy Reagan did...
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Steele, Shelby 1946-
The Rise of Black Conservatism.
Conservatism made impressive gains in the United States during the 1980s, including the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the rise of Protestant fundamentalism, and challenges to multiculturalism and feminism in academe. The decade also saw the rise to prominence of several black intellectuals who questioned liberal orthodoxy on such matters as racial preferences and affirmative action. One of the most articulate of such figures was Shelby Steele, a professor of English at San Jose State University in California.
Steele was born in Chicago and earned a doctorate in English from the University of Utah in 1974. During the late 1980s, however, he became known for his skillfully written articles on race in such periodicals as Harper's, Commentary, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine. In these articles, and in many interviews, he dealt with such issues as black self-reliance, racism, white guilt, and affirmative action, arguing for black self-determination over preferences and claiming...
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Stewart, Martha 1941-
AUTHORITY ON ENTERTAINING
Authority on the Good Life.
The 1980s were a decade of conservatism but also of materialism, if not excess. Yuppies climbed income brackets and social ladders, consumers sought out designer labels and exclusive products, and bumper stickers appeared proclaiming that whoever dies with the most toys wins. Catering to America's growing taste for the good life but injecting an element of breeding and good taste, Martha Stewart emerged during the decade as America's foremost authority on entertaining and decorating.
Born Martha Kostyra in New Jersey, she began modeling in high school and learned gardening from her father, a salesman. Continuing to model while studying European history and architectural history at Barnard College, in 1960 she met Andrew Stewart, a student at Yale Law School. They married the following year. She continued to model, making as much as $35,000 a year. After...
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Williams, Vanessa 1963-
SINGER ACTRESS, FORMER MISS AMERICA
From Infamy to Fame.
Young, beautiful, and ambitious for an entertainment career, Vanessa Williams made headlines in the 1980s for two "firsts" in American history: she was the first black Miss America and the first Miss America to resign her crown. The resignation took place, under pressure from the Miss America organization, following the 1984 publication in Penthouse magazine of steamy photographs taken of Williams when she was nineteen. Williams emerged from the controversy with a great deal of sympathy from the public—many people believed that she had been exploited—and was well on the way to the career she desired. In fact, the publicity surrounding her resignation may have helped her chances more than merely being Miss America could have.
The Girl Next Door.
The daughter of two music teachers, Williams grew up in Millwood, New York, with the dream of becoming the first black Rockette. Instead, the summer after her first year at Syracuse University she found work as a receptionist for a freelance photographer, Tom Chiapel, who persuaded...
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People in the News
In May 1980 Maxie Anderson and his son Kris became the first balloonists to cross North America nonstop.
In 1989 twenty-year-old cadet Kristin M. Baker was selected as brigade commander and first captain of the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Baker was the first woman in West Point history to be chosen for the post, in which she would be overseeing all aspects of life for the academy's mostly male cadet corps.
In 1980 the Mattel toy company celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of its Barbie doll by unveiling the first "adult figure" Barbie; more than 115 million dolls had been sold since 1959.
Sharon Barts, a nine-year-old from Texas, became a singing star with her recording of "Dear Mr. Jesus" in 1987. The gospel song about child abuse was played by hundreds of radio stations throughout the country.
In 1981 Elizabeth Jordan Carr was the first test-tube baby born in the United States. Delivered by caesarean section in Norfolk, Virginia, Elizabeth weighed five and a half pounds.
In 1983 former television news anchorwoman Christine Craft sued Metromedia, Inc., owner of the station in Kansas City at which Craft had worked. In 1983 Craft's male bosses had demoted her from her anchor-woman position because, she charged,...
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George Adamson, 83, environmentalist whose work was featured in his wife's book Born Free (1960), 20 August 1989.
Joy Adamson, 69, naturalist, author of Born Free, 3 January 1980.
Roger Baldwin, 97, helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, 26 August 1981.
James Beard, 81, renowned chef, 23 January 1985.
Billy Carter, 51, well-known brother of President Jimmy Carter, 25 September 1988.
Miles L. Colean, 82, economist who helped to create the Federal Housing Administration, coiner of the term urban renewal, 16 September 1980.
Dorothy Day, 83, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, 29 November 1980.
James F. Fixx, 52, authority on running, 20 July 1984.
R. Buckminster Fuller, 87, inventor and futurist, 1 July 1983.
George H. Gallup, 82, pioneer in opinion polling, 26 July 1984.
Sylvan N. Goldman, 86, inventor of the shopping cart, 25 November 1984.
John Howard Griffin, 60, whose book Black Like Me (1961) described his experiences as a white man who masqueraded as a black man to understand prejudice in the South, 9 September 1980....
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Andrew Achenbaum, Social Security: Visions and Revisions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986);
Merton C. Bernstein and Joan Brodshaug Bernstein, Social Security: The System That Works (New York: Basic Books, 1988);
Richard C. Carlson, Willis W. Harman, Peter Schwartz, and others, Energy Futures, Human Values, and lifestyles: A New Look at the Energy Crisis (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1982);
Robert E. Clark and Judith Freeman Clark, The Encyclopedia of Child Abuse (New York: Facts On File, 1989);
Lee B. Cooper, Images of American Society in Popular Music: A Guide to Reflective Teaching (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982);
John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988);
Park O. Davidson and Sheena M. Davidson, eds., Behavioral Medicine: Changing Health Lifestyles (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1980);
David Finkelhor, Linda Meyer Williams, and Nanci Burns, Nursery Crimes: Sexual Abuse in Day Care (Newbury Park, Cal.: SAGE Publications, 1988);
Benjamin Friedman, Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After (New York: Random House, 1988);
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- A survey finds that although smoking has dropped among men, women, and teenage boys during the last ten years, smoking among teenage girls has increased by more than 50 percent.
- Rum outsells vodka in the United States and outsells whiskey for the first time since the nineteenth century.
- Opposition to President Jimmy Carter grows as inflation continues to rise. Ronald Reagan wins the presidential and vice-presidential election on November 4 after basing his campaign on supply-side economics and a promise to reduce the size of government.
- On January 4, Bert Parks is relieved of his duties as master of ceremonies for the Miss America pageant after twenty-five years.
- On February 4, a Census Bureau study estimates that there are between 3.5 million and 4 million illegal aliens living in the United States.
- On March 1, more than a thousand people attend a national Conference on a Black Agenda for the 1980s in Richmond, Virginia, and call for the election of more African American public officials.
- From May 17 to 19, rioting occurs in African American neighborhoods in Miami after an all-white jury acquits four police officers who had been charged with beating an African American insurance executive to death. In the wake of the rioting Miami is declared a...
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