That history is replete with ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions is part of its appeal. Brief looks at two of the most successful movements in modern American history illustrate this point. Although each of these movements helped to create a more just America and clearly led to the expansion of economic, social, and political opportunities for millions of people, both had unanticipated and anomalous effects.
In the case of the civil rights movement, some African Americans and African American institutions experienced dislocations, even reversals as a result of one of the movement’s greatest successes: integration. Black-owned businesses often were hurt once black consumers had the freedom to choose among a broader array of commercial venues for shopping eating, sleeping, etc. Similarly, many African American teachers at formerly segregated “colored” schools found themselves displaced, bumped, or otherwise set back once integration led to the merging of white and black school systems and the closing of many historically black schools.
The civil rights revolution affected African American educational institutions in other ways. The integration of intercollegiate athletics in the South during the 1960s and 1970s was clearly a great boon overall both to African American athletes and to college sports in the region. With the integration of southern sports, however, powerhouse programs—particularly football programs—at many HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) went into decline.
Why? Because the great majority of the most talented African American football players—players who previously would have starred at schools such as Grambling, Florida A&M, South Carolina State and Jackson State — were increasingly free to play at higher-profile institutions such as Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Texas.
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Thus, while the civil rights movement is one of the great successes in our history, its effects were both paradoxical and ironic. So, too, with the women’s movement. As this movement began to break down barriers in the 1960s, we see a great expansion of economic opportunity for American women after centuries of formal and informal restrictions regarding career paths and discrimination in the workplace.
As a result, women not only entered the workforce in increasing numbers and proportions, but also increasingly pursued paths that they had formerly been discouraged or, at times, even proscribed from pursuing. The distinguished economist Claudia Goldin has carefully documented the powerful shift in female employment patterns in the 1960s and 1970s, a shift away from traditional jobs as teachers, nurses, librarians, social workers and secretaries, and toward the "professions,” that is to say, into positions as lawyers, doctors, managers, scientists, and professors.
While this shift was long overdue and often resulted in better and more appropriate uses of individual women’s skill sets, it, too, had some unanticipated consequences. In this regard, the consequences for American school children likely constitute Exhibit A. Prior to women’s break out into the professions, job discrimination under-placed many women who had “professional” talent into positions as primary and secondary-school teachers.
Although this mismatch was likely inefficient (not to mention frustrating and stifling to many women), it meant that American school kids had access to extremely smart and talented, often elite talent to instruct them. Almost everyone who attended American schools in the 1950s and 1960s can regale you with stories of brilliant female teachers from whom they had the good fortune to learn. Once these teachers moved out and up, they were often replaced by teachers whose credentials on paper at least were less impressive.
Unlike schools in Finland and Singapore, U.S. schools have had trouble ever since finding ways to recruit and retain top college and university graduates. There are, again, many reasons for this problem, including poor pay, short and inadequate job ladders, insufficient opportunities for refreshing skills, and lack of social valorization. But one almost certainly relates to the success of the women’s movement, one of our country’s great achievements.