How Race And Identity Shaped America Over 40 Years Of NPR's Morning Edition Since our show debuted in 1979, some notions of race and identity have changed dramatically, while in other ways the same painful battles continue.
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How Identity Has Changed — And Hasn't — Over 40 Years Of 'Morning Edition'

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

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

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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.

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