Christopher Caldwell’s big idea: The civil rights revolution was a mistake

America is a divided country.

If I asked you to work backwards to the origins of the culture war or to the event that set us on our current course, what would it be? Vietnam? Watergate? The Iraq War? Donald Trump?

A new book by Christopher Caldwell, an influential conservative journalist, proffers a surprising answer: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Caldwell’s book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, has become a must-read among right-leaning intellectuals. The book isn’t exactly an assault on the initial Civil Rights Act so much as an attack on its legal outgrowths.

Caldwell doesn’t defend racism or the apartheid system the Civil Rights Act dismantled; rather, he argues that the civil rights movement spawned a whole constellation of other liberation struggles — for immigrants, for gay and transgender rights, for sexual freedom — that Americans did not sign up for and did not want. And the result of this steady encroachment is what Caldwell calls a “rival Constitution” that is incompatible with the original one and the source of a great deal of social unrest.

There are a lot of fascinating observations in Caldwell’s book, and some conspicuous omissions, but it does scan as something of a rant, albeit a very eloquent one. White Americans, he writes, “fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races.”

The notion that white Americans are at the bottom of any hierarchy seems far-fetched, but he’s right in a narrow sense. The price of leveling an unequal social order is often the resentment of people whose power has been diminished. Caldwell seems to think that price is too high.

I reject Caldwell’s view of history, but I do think he identifies some very real tensions at the core of American life. And whatever you think of his diagnosis, this is an important book that’s worth engaging because it articulates what many Americans on one side of the culture war feel.

I spoke to Caldwell by phone about his motivations for writing the book, what he thinks went wrong with the Civil Rights Act, and why he thinks white people — white men, in particular — are getting left behind.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

I think it’s fair to say that a majority of Americans regard the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a great moral and political achievement. You call it an “oppression.” Why?

Christopher Caldwell

Well, what I said was that by November of 2016, there was a working majority in a presidential election that perceived it as an oppression. And the judgment that was made in the 2016 election was at least indirectly a response to the order that arose out of the 1960s.

Sean Illing

Who was oppressed by the order that arose out of the Civil Rights Act?

Christopher Caldwell

Of the book’s many narrative lines, the one that’s received a lot of attention finds the source of a lot of our conflicts in the legislative outgrowths of the Civil Rights Act.

Overturning segregation meant overturning a lot of the democratic institutions of the South. Now you can argue that they were illegitimate or that they were invidious or they were exclusionary, but the federal government needed legal tools to overturn a functioning democratic system. And those tools wound up being adaptable to a whole range of other tasks.

Sean Illing

What other tasks?

Christopher Caldwell

Securing the advancement of women in corporations, securing the integration of immigrants in American society, winning rights for gays, winning rights for transsexuals. Set aside the merits of any of this, the point is that accomplishing these things involved empowering judges and regulators or bureaucrats more generally to make laws. And I think that a lot of people felt left out of that process.

Sean Illing

Do you think it would’ve been better to have left things as they were? Should we have allowed Jim Crow to end whenever the South decided the time was right?

Christopher Caldwell

The short answer to that is no. This book is in no way a defense of Jim Crow or segregation or anything like that.

Sean Illing

It seems to me that some cultural disorientation was an unavoidable consequence of any effort to create more equity in the system. And it was probably inevitable that progress on the racial front would lead to pushes for progress on other fronts. I guess I’m wondering what you think we could have done differently?

Christopher Caldwell

It’s important to say that this is really a work of history. I don’t lay out or propose an alternative path. This isn’t a road not taken book. But I will say that as long as the civil rights legislation was limited to solving the problem of segregation, it had a self-evident coherence for most Americans, and it had a set of boundaries.

I think as you went on, and as it deepened, it deepened through new measures like affirmative action and busing. But more importantly, as it spread, it became an open-ended thing, and it became quite unclear to Americans where it stopped, and where the old system of just letting the local democracies still obtained.

Sean Illing

One consequence of the Civil Rights Act, in your words, was that it forced the issue of race “into every nook and cranny of the country.” That seems wrong to me. Not having to think about race was a luxury for white people in a world in which their power was unquestioned. The Civil Rights Act upended that by extending rights and power to more people, more groups.

Christopher Caldwell

I think you’re right about that. One thing you’ll have noticed in the book is that I make a lot of use of the legal scholars who were called critical race theorists. They were somewhat controversial in the ’90s, but I think there are a lot of them on campuses now. There’s one in particular named Alan David Freeman, who has focused a lot on this conception of victims and perpetrators.

In the case of segregation, blacks were obviously the victims and whites were obviously the perpetrators. What Freedman says is that if you’re on the victim end, if you’re on the receiving end of this inequality, you live it as a deprivation of a lot of specific things and you’re not going to feel it’s fixed until you start getting those specific things, whether they’re material things like an equal shot in the housing market or just let’s say abstract things like respect and dignity.

If you’re on the perpetrator’s side, then it looks to you like an ethical problem, and the moment you say, okay, we’re all equal, then the situation seems solved to you. And as long you don’t hear anyone endorsing the old system, then we’re fine. I think that’s a pretty accurate description of the sociology of this.

Sean Illing

The perception of privilege is worth circling back to, but I want to highlight a point you make in the book about the roots of this “rival Constitution” because I think it frames a lot of this discussion.

You write: “Just half a decade into the civil rights revolution, America had something it had never had at the federal level, something the overwhelming majority of its citizens would never have approved: an explicit system of racial preference.” This is technically true since what we had was a separate but equal doctrine, and therefore not a system of “racial preference.” Is it your position that we should have preserved the separate but equal framework? Was the cure really worse than the disease?

A large crowd gathers in South Boston’s Columbus Park to protest federal court-ordered busing of black students to all-white neighborhood schools in 1975.
Spencer Grant/Getty Images

Christopher Caldwell

That’s an essay’s worth of arguing, but I just want to repeat that this book is not a defense of segregation.

Sean Illing

I don’t mean to imply that it is, and I’ll just say clearly that that’s not how I read it at all. But you do argue that the cure of civil rights legislation may have been worse than the disease of segregation insofar as it paved the way for all these other movements that steadily eroded the rights of Americans to organize their communities however they want.

Christopher Caldwell

Yes, only if you understand that it’s the extensions of the Civil Rights Act, not the initial treatment itself, that I’m talking about. What we’re talking about here is the unintended consequences and bureaucratic refinements and things that have to do less with the civil rights movement and the protagonists and antagonists of it.

Sean Illing

Well, let’s talk about some of those extensions so that it’s clear for readers. Part of your argument is that freedom of association is the “master freedom” that makes every other political freedom possible and that some of these extensions of civil rights, like anti-discrimination laws for gay Americans, undermines it.

Do you really believe that, say, requiring a baker to sell cakes to gay couples obliterates the possibility of meaningful political freedom?

Christopher Caldwell

That’s an interesting case that I would want to study before I pronounce on it, but I’ll tell you in the abstract how I feel about that question. The question of whether to sell a cake to a specific kind of customer is covered under the public accommodations aspect of the Civil Rights Act. The problem in those cases, as I understood it, is that they were being compelled to write a message on the cake. I thought that that was the constitutional issue.

But as I say, I didn’t write about that case as a journalist. I think there’s a sentence on it in the book, but I think it’s the free speech aspect and not the public accommodations aspect that’s the problem there.

[Author’s note: Caldwell’s characterization of the Colorado baker’s case isn’t quite accurate. In that case, the plaintiff’s lawyer argued that the wedding cake itself, not any particular message, was expressive and so preparing it signaled a pro-same-sex marriage view.]

Sean Illing

What are some better examples in your mind that clarify the problem?

Christopher Caldwell

There are quite a number of them and they work in different ways. Look at the way bilingual education was brought into American life, for example, which was in a Supreme Court case that was called Lau v. Nichols in 1974.

When the Supreme Court made its judgment [the Court ruled that the school system was required to provide equal opportunities and access to all students since it received federal funding], the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare began writing rules about what this necessary bilingual education would look like. At that point, the courts began giving ups and downs on whether schools were acting in accordance with the rules set up in the Education Department.

So this was a new law and a new set of institutions that at no point had ever passed through the democratic part of the American system. There’s no bilingual education law. And one of the things that surprised me in the course of the book was discovering that when Michael Bloomberg in New York, as mayor, tried to shut down a couple of bilingual education problems, he wasn’t able to do it.

This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. It shows how a regime of new laws and institutions sprang out of the initial civil rights passage and was enforced without any input at all from the actual electorate.

Sean Illing

At one point, you write that white Americans “fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races.” People will read that, fairly or not, as the cry of a reactionary, someone who doesn’t recognize the country anymore and hates what it’s become.

Christopher Caldwell

I don’t think of myself as a reactionary, but one of the unintended consequences of civil rights was to create a white consciousness. And I think that it’s the photographic negative of what we can call intersectionality. But, as I said earlier, as long as civil rights law was focused on segregation, it was both comprehensible and it had some boundaries which I think kept the country calm.

But as it spread, you started having coalitions based on rights. And the two parties evolved around this coalition-building. So you have these rights-based coalitions that unite blacks, immigrants, the handicapped, women, gays, transgender people, everyone who benefits from these new protections. But as that happens, as these coalitional pieces come together, a segment of the population gets cut out from the conversation, and that segment becomes its own coalition, which is principally white Americans.

President Trump attends a “Keep America Great” rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 10, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Sean Illing

“White consciousness,” as you put it, is like any other identity: It gets activated when it’s under threat or challenged. And this sort of reaction was an unavoidable consequence of any effort to level the playing field. This is a problem you accurately diagnose, and I just don’t see a way around it.

Christopher Caldwell

Well, I don’t give up hope for that, but I’m saying that it’s where we’re stuck right now and that’s a worrisome thing.

Sean Illing

Have the actual lives of white people been materially harmed? White people, by practically any measure, are still doing pretty well in this country, no?

Christopher Caldwell

What I’m saying is, there’s a feeling of loss among people. It’s tough to talk about white people because these developments have coincided with an extraordinary opening up of equality in society.

Sean Illing

I don’t doubt that feeling of loss, and I don’t want to diminish its importance. The question is, does the reality of loss track with the feeling of loss?

Christopher Caldwell

I think there are a lot of things that have been lost. Certainly that sense of cultural security that you described is part of it. But I think there’s also the sense of having lost sovereignty, of having lost self-rule. And there’s a sense that the country no longer responds to electoral and congressional politics the way it used to.

So to go back to the conversation about gay rights. If you look at the debate over gay marriage between, say, 2003 and 2015, what you see is 33 consecutive referendum votes against gay marriage, three votes for gay marriage, and then a removal of the issue from the democratic part of society and the conferring of the authority to decide it on the judiciary.

This is troubling to a lot of people from a constitutional perspective, and I don’t think it can be explained away in terms of a lost privilege or anything.

Sean Illing

Have you thought much about how this post-civil rights history might look from the perspective of the other side? How the price of stability in the pre-civil rights era might look through the eyes of someone whose dignity was sacrificed on its altar?

Christopher Caldwell

I thought about this the other day and I thought about a couple of people living in the same town. Say there’s a guy who lives in a medium-sized town, he’s gay, he’s now able to marry. He has two adopted children, and he looks at this rights revolution and he says, “Wow, I owe my whole life to this.” And that’s wonderful.

At the same time, across the street from him might be a guy who doesn’t believe in gay marriage. The guy who doesn’t believe in gay marriage is not just someone who disagrees with him. It’s much deeper than that. And whether it’s for moral or religious reasons, he may hold his opponent’s lifestyle in contempt in a very serious way.

This is a very difficult situation. The guy who disagrees with gay marriage may have a son who’s being taught about gender fluidity in school at seven years old. And that may bother him and he may say, “I never voted for this. No one in my neighborhood likes this.” And so he feels, with some cause, that he’s living in an undemocratic society.

What I’m saying is, there are things to celebrate here but also things to worry about. The clash between the two sides is, in some ways, irreconcilable.

Sean Illing

I think you’re right about that, and it’s partly why your book ends in a rather depressing cul-de-sac. We’re not going to repeal the Civil Rights Act, nor are we going undo the progress of, say, the gay rights movement. And you know that.

So where does that leave us?

Christopher Caldwell

I say that we have a situation in which the Democrats only get the full rights they desire by withdrawing certain freedoms of choice from the American public. And for the Republicans to get the full unbridled democracy that they want would require the repeal of the Civil Rights Act. But I’m not wishing for that. Again, this book is a history, not a manifesto.

I simply wanted to describe the intractability of the partisan divide. I don’t think the Civil Rights Act is going anywhere either. So where does that leave us? Well, I’m not sure. The book is a description of where we are. And while it’s a conservative book, I do think there’s room for some common ground.

I do not think that the Trump movement or the Republican Party more generally is a racist movement. I don’t think that, but I do think that Trump’s rise has something to do with these laws that were originally passed to fix our race problem. And it has to do with the way those laws have evolved. And this is something the left and the right can agree on, even if they can’t agree on the path forward.