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The End of the Rainbow

The poverty of racial politics and the future of liberalism

In the conclusion of Goethe's epic Faust, the great magician who has made a pact with the devil hears the clinking of shovels. Faust, who is blind, believes he is listening to the sound of workers on a project he is promoting to reclaim land from the sea for the benefit of mankind. In fact, the shovels are in the hands of demons, who are digging Faust's own grave.

American liberalism faces a similar irony. For the past generation, the left has been identified with the strategy of what Jesse Jackson calls the Rainbow Coalition. Where the old left assigned the vanguard role in history to factory workers, the New Left assigns it to people of color. The assumption has been that policies such as affirmative action and racial redistricting would unite blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans politically. Sympathetic whites would be permitted to join the coalition, but white concerns about reverse discrimination would be dismissed as racist. In time, many on the left assumed, "rainbow liberalism" would triumph purely as a result of demographic trends, as California, Texas, New York, and eventually the whole country acquired nonwhite majorities.

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The strategy of rainbow liberalism has rested on two assumptions. The first is that conservatism would not appeal to nonwhite Americans. The second is that the very policies that promote the rainbow strategy -- affirmative action and high immigration -- would not produce tensions among the multiracial rainbow's constituent bands. If these assumptions are wrong, then rainbow liberalism is digging its own grave.

They are, and it is.

Already mainstream leaders in the GOP are rejecting white nativism. Some are even supporting affirmative action and immigration in the hope of appealing to socially or economically conservative blacks, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans. At the same time, affirmative action in higher education divides blacks and Hispanics from Asian-Americans, while high levels of immigration hurt black workers in some parts of the country. The rise of a multicultural right, though it may doom rainbow liberalism, provides an opening for a new liberalism that stresses social equality and national integration.

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