How did the Civil Rights Movements and the 1980s reshape American identity for different groups? Which period was more transformative?

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Many different groups were affected by the Civil Rights Movement(s). Much of the original impetus of these movements lay in the 1960s, which was an era of radical change in ethnic rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is widely considered a landmark, second in importance only to the Emancipation proclamation and female suffrage.

Many of the movements for racial justice in subsequent decades grew out of the activism of the 1960s. Although the feminist movement dated back to earlier efforts to improve the rights and conditions of women, especially the suffragettes, it can be argued that the movements for racial justice in the 1960s also inspired a great resurgence of feminism, including the Women's Liberation movement and, more recently, #MeToo. Thus one could argue that the 1960s were more important than the 1980s.

The issue of gay and transgender rights also was positively influenced by the Civil Rights Movement but occurred somewhat later. The AiDs crisis of the 1980s galvanized gay activism. Not only did the gay community and allies come together to develop treatments for the disease, but HIV activism also galvanized the movement for gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Thus, it could be argued that the 1980s were a crucial period for the gay rights movement.

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In my view the Civil Rights movement, beginning in the 1950s, was far more important in reshaping the identity of America than the 1980's were.

It was even earlier, in the late 1940s, that the US began to dismantle the old system of racial segregation, when the armed forces and professional sports became integrated. These were huge steps at the time, and the fact that, from today's perspective, it seems bizarre that both of those institutions were segregated shows how far the US has come and how much it has changed. The subsequent dismantling of Jim Crow laws and the integration of school systems in the South over the next 20 years completed this process of turning the US into an at least legally post-racial society, despite the unfortunate institutionalized racism that persists even today.

Put simply, everyone was affected by this transformation, but if we wish to narrow our focus as much as possible to specific social or ethnic/racial groups, the dynamic between the African American community and the majority white population as a whole was where the most profound change occurred. Even if many of the latter were still racially prejudiced after the changes that took place in the 50s and 60s, in general, they were far less likely to treat African Americans in the openly discriminatory manner of the past.

The sad fact, however, is that de facto racial segregation in much or most of urban America has continued into the present. And the racist attitudes, usually veiled but sometimes openly expressed, that we've seen at the highest levels of political leadership in recent years make one wonder if the genuine progress that has occurred is now being subtly (or not so subtly) reversed in a major backlash against progressive principles.

It's obviously not the first backlash in US history. The landslide victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a reaction against the perceived dominant liberalism and the supposedly weak international standing of the US over the previous 20 years. But fortunately, Reagan's goal wasn't to erase racial progress. The emphasis was on economic and military factors. Reagan was openly anti-Union and believed in the "trickle-down" theory whereby policies that gave huge tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations would enrich society as a whole. Though stating, as most conservatives do, that he believed in limited government, he vastly increased military spending in order to defeat Communism. Though the real long-term effect of his policies has been to widen the gap between rich and poor in the US, the technology boom of the 1980s created a huge number of new jobs that boosted the economy and made it appear that Reagan's policies were a huge success. Unfortunately, the groups that were long-term losers in this process were middle-class and working-class Americans of all races.

But as much as the Reagan years represented a backlash, the major social changes that ended legalized racial discrimination in the US were not reversed. This, in my view, was more significant for the American "identity" than were the economic changes put in place in the 1980s.

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Starting in the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement shaped the idea of American identity as one of greater equality among different groups. While all of the goals of the movement were not met and the struggle for equality is ongoing, African Americans began to push for greater equality with regard to voting rights, legal rights, and economic status. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement began to stress the importance of Black pride and the celebration of Black identity. Blacks began to wear their hair and dress in ways that stressed their own identity and not simply acceptance of white standards, and they continued to celebrate their distinct history and traditions.

Many groups were inspired by the Civil Rights movement, including LBGTQ+ people in the 1980s. Groups such as ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (see their website below), began to agitate to direct more funding to solving the AIDS crisis. Protests centered not only on helping people with AIDS and helping to find a cure for AIDS but also on granting greater recognition of and respect for LBGTQ+ people. Therefore, the 1980s continued the development of civil rights organizations that began in the 1960s and continued the quest for the recognition and equality of different social groups.

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