Ronald Reagan has a long history of promoting white supremacist policies and race-baiting white voters by appealing to their bigotries. Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman both take on Reagan’s racist legacy, with Herbert writing:
In one of the vilest moves in modern presidential politics, Ronald Reagan, the ultimate hero of this latter-day Republican Party, went out of his way to kick off his general election campaign in 1980 in that very same Philadelphia, Miss. [where three young civil rights activists were shot to death by rabid racists in 1964]. He was not there to send the message that he stood solidly for the values of Andrew Goodman. He was there to assure the bigots that he was with them.
“I believe in states’ rights,” said Mr. Reagan. The crowd roared.
In 1981, during the first year of Mr. Reagan’s presidency, the late Lee Atwater gave an interview to a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, explaining the evolution of the Southern strategy:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’ ” said Atwater. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
True, he never used explicit racial rhetoric. Neither did Richard Nixon. As Thomas and Mary Edsall put it in their classic 1991 book, “Chain Reaction: The impact of race, rights and taxes on American politics,” “Reagan paralleled Nixon’s success in constructing a politics and a strategy of governing that attacked policies targeted toward blacks and other minorities without reference to race — a conservative politics that had the effect of polarizing the electorate along racial lines.”
Thus, Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.
There are many other examples of Reagan’s tacit race-baiting in the historical record. My colleague Bob Herbert described some of these examples in a recent column. Here’s one he didn’t mention: During the 1976 campaign Reagan often talked about how upset workers must be to see an able-bodied man using food stamps at the grocery store. In the South — but not in the North — the food-stamp user became a “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks.
Now, about the Philadelphia story: in December 1979 the Republican national committeeman from Mississippi wrote a letter urging that the party’s nominee speak at the Neshoba Country Fair, just outside the town where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. It would, he wrote, help win over “George Wallace inclined voters.”
Sure enough, Reagan appeared, and declared his support for states’ rights — which everyone took to be a coded declaration of support for segregationist sentiments.
Reagan’s defenders protest furiously that he wasn’t personally bigoted. So what? We’re talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.
Krugman is being overly-generous here. I’m not sure a person who isn’t bigoted could have possibly supported the kinds of policies that Reagan did. The Reagan apologist writes:
The mythology of Neshoba is wrong in two distinct ways. First, Ronald Reagan was not a racist. Second, his Neshoba speech was not an effective symbolic appeal to white voters. Instead, it was a political misstep that cost him support.
He doesn’t bother to support either of these statements with anything substantive, so we’re supposed to just take his word for it. Did the Neshoba speech hurt Reagan’s candidacy? It doesn’t look like it — Southern whites supported him in huge numbers, and they continue to support the Republican party. And his evidence for Reagan being an anti-racist is his having a black friend and his support of desegregation of Major League Baseball. So he was happy to have people of color play sports for his viewing pleasure, and he was nice to a black guy once — clearly that totally overrides all the actions he took as president:
Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.
He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.
And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.
Congress overrode the veto.
Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too.
But sure, it was just about the federalism. No racism to see here.
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