On the Margins in Reagan's America

AHA Session 130
Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Loyola University Chicago
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Loyola University Chicago

Session Abstract

Scholars often cite Ronald Reagan’s election to President in 1980 as a culminating moment in the ascension of conservative power in the United States. While the “Reagan Revolution” fell short of the expectations of its most ardent conservative supporters, the Reagan era nonetheless brought sweeping changes across the country. This panel investigates how these changes – from the elimination of federal programs that benefited low-income populations to an invigorated celebration of individual wealth to a focus on conservative ideals of public morality – often exacerbated the already challenging conditions of daily life for those at the margins of America. While much of the literature on the 1980s focuses on the political and economic changes implemented during the era, these presentations shift historians’ focus to what these changes meant for the country’s vulnerable populations.

Ben Holtzman demonstrates how New York City’s public spaces became a testing ground for private sector influence in responding to the city’s growing homelessness problem. Private sector actors used their increasingly prominent role in governing public spaces to shift policy responses to public homeless toward increasingly punitive measures, including the first major implementation of a “broken windows”-style policing campaign. Jennifer Klein shows how the rollback of public sector oversight and regulation created a public health disaster in Southeastern Louisiana by contaminating the land and water around largely African American communities in the area. This push for profit and de-regulation not only made Louisiana a national waste disposal site, but it exacerbated racial inequalities through environmental injustices rooted in the drive for corporate profit. Mauricio Castro addresses how foreign policy concerns and the growing anti-immigrant backlash of the era drove a wedge between South Florida’s Cuban American community and Cuban migrants held in indefinite detention by the federal government. As advocates challenged the constitutionality of indefinite detention, the Cuban American community largely dissociated itself from these detainees and embraced the politics of responsibility as a response to growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Finally, Sara Matthiesen traces how activists pushed for HIV/AIDS to be seen as a reproductive rights issue at a time when women were inaccurately understood to be unlikely to contract the illness. These activists sought to bring about a public health response that took into account gender and race-based power differentials that made women vulnerable to the disease.

By shifting the focus to the decade’s vulnerable populations this panel challenges artificial distinctions between political and social history by demonstrating how policy changes exacerbated existing hierarchies of sexuality, poverty, immigration status, and race. By considering the lived effects of and reactions to policy changes, this panel not only traces how underprivileged groups were affected by the changing economic and political environment of the Reagan era, but also demonstrates the often-powerful roles they had in shaping this landscape. Both within and outside the formal realms of electoral politics and social movements, marginalized groups were active participants in the processes of political, economic, and social transformation.

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