When affirmative action was first implemented, it was not met with a broad backlash from white America. Like Nixon, the average white voter was inclined to do something “not to have the goddamn country blow up.” Then the 1970s recession hit and access to jobs felt more like a zero-sum game. It was then that white people began to use phrases like “reverse racism” and “haven’t we done enough for them already?” The parties flip-flopped. Liberals, who had once disdained racial quotas as being antithetical to true liberty and justice, embraced them for the short-term leverage they provided. Republicans, once in favor of set asides and preferences as a cheap and easy solution for appeasing blacks, now saw them as a wedge issue useful for stirring up disaffected whites. Then Ronald Reagan was elected president and started undermining racial preferences just as quickly as Richard Nixon had put them in place.
To this day, Reagan is vilified by the left as the man who crushed America’s dream of racial equality by rolling back affirmative action. But of course Reagan started rolling back affirmative action. Why wouldn’t he? Affirmative action was created by the Republican establishment to protect the Republican establishment. Once that group felt protected, once it was Morning in America and the riots had been reduced to occasional flare-ups in Liberty City and Crown Heights, affirmative action had largely fulfilled its purpose: Blacks had been pacified enough that their needs could be safely ignored. So why not start winding it down?
The problem with winding it down was that black Americans were now invested in it, had banked their hopes on it. By embracing affirmative action as a solution to economic disparity, the liberal establishment encouraged black Americans to double down on something that was never intended to close the economic gap in the first place. As a result, they were promised something that the government can’t actually deliver.