The immediate source of inspiration for this collection was a panel organized for the Olive-Harvey 15th Annual Black Studies Conference in 1992. The title of the panel, "American Public Policy Priorities and the African- American Community: The Retreat of the Liberal State," provided the co-authors and conference participants an opportunity to explore recent arguments that legislation, social policy, and the temperament of the Reagan-Bush years represented a retrenchment, a turning away from the Democratic alliance of the New Deal Era and the Johnson Great Society Programs. For many analysts, these eras had resulted in important victories for many constituencies so long underrepresented in the political arena. African Americans, scholars argue, reaped particular benefits. Such concessions as legislative enforcement of the Civil War amendments, affirmative action policies, and Supreme Court reapportionment rulings provided mechanisms for challenging racially discriminatory practices that have been an integral part of U.S. history. The erosion of these policies during the Reagan-Bush years was interpreted as abandonment of liberal commitments to compensating for the inequalities generated by the invisible hand of the United States' free market.
The Olive-Harvey panelists raised questions about the historical character of liberalism as the governing political and economic philosophy of the United States. Although panelists and conference participants appreciated and acknowledged the ways in which the New Deal and Great Society Programs moderated the meanest dimensions of racism, they acknowledged the centrality of racism to U.S. culture and suggested that recent developments represented a permutation of a persistent theme. The interdisciplinary character of the Olive-Harvey Conference brought together a range of disciplines and created a setting in which the troubling twentieth century compartmentalization of knowledge could be challenged. This book