Backlash Essay

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Backlash is a term used to describe action taken by individuals and groups to counter an existing social or political development. Although the term may be used to describe efforts seeking progressive effects, such as the move to reform health care in the United States, it is more often used to denote a countermovement aimed at narrowing a group’s access to rights and benefits. The point of a typical backlash is to prevent a targeted group from obtaining, or continuing to obtain, certain rights or benefits bestowed through policy or law. The action can take various forms, including voter initiatives, court challenges, demonstrations, and violence.

Among those targeted by recent backlashes in the United States were welfare mothers for existing on welfare, gays and lesbians for seeking the right to marry, women and people of color for having affirmative action policies, and women for legally obtaining abortions. The backlash against welfare mothers led to a federal law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which reversed longstanding policy by limiting the time a family could receive welfare and mandating that adult recipients work. The move against gay and lesbian rights resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, the refusal of several other states to acknowledge those marriages, and an unsuccessful, proposed constitutional amendment to ban such marriages throughout the nation. Successful efforts to dismantle affirmative action included voter referendums in California, Washington, and Michigan and several rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, including Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena and Texas v. Hopwood. Less successful, but considerably more violent, with abortion clinics bombed, several physicians murdered, and scores of women physically and verbally harassed, was the backlash against legalized abortion.

An early example of a backlash in U.S. history involved the federal rights granted to former slaves and their descendants in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Among these were the right to vote, for men, through the Civil Rights Act of 1870, and access to public accommodations for all, through the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The backlash against these and other rights included the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the institution of Jim Crow laws and social practices by state and local governments, and the support of such laws by the U.S. Supreme Court beginning with its 1896 ruling in the case Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court also invalidated key sections of the 1870 act in James v. Bowman in 1903 and the 1875 act in the Civil Rights Cases in 1883. It was not until decades later that the court overturned the separate but equal doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson through Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Congress eventually restored most of the rights that had been rescinded by the Supreme Court in James v. Bowman and the Civil Rights Cases through provisions located in the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, respectively.


  • Faludi, Susan. 2006. Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. 15th anniv. ed. New York: Crown.

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