Reagan wasn’t a racist, he just supported racist policies

right.

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.”

Krugman says:

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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21 comments for “Reagan wasn’t a racist, he just supported racist policies

  1. meggygurl
    November 20, 2007 at 11:11 am

    And his evidence for Reagan being an anti-racist is his having a black friend and his support of desegregation of Major League Baseball.

    Ya know what that makes me think of, Stephen Colbert’s Black Friend. Cause clearly you can’t be a racist if you have a black friend.

    And honestly, if you can only name ONE black friend in you entire life… well… maybe that’s saying something.

  2. Suzanne M
    November 20, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    I’m surprised the Cannon column hasn’t gotten more attention in the blogs I read. I was utterly baffled by some of his arguments. Especially the idea that just because “it was a political misstep that cost him support”, it was therefore not an appeal to racists. How does that follow?

    Then again, perhaps the Cannon column hasn’t gotten more attention simply because it’s so blatantly ridiculous.

  3. Leo
    November 20, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    I realize that getting some people here to read an NRO column is going to be challenging, but Deroy Murdock (Yes, he has really unfortunate view on waterboarding, but lets keep this about Reagan) debunks these charges better than anyone I’ve seen.

    http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NjNkZDZjMWU0YjgxZDFjMmJiZjJlMjg0MTg2NTdlNzk=

  4. Bitter Scribe
    November 20, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    Leo: So some second-string black wingnut cherrypicks some mealymouthed quotes about tolerance, and that’s supposed to “debunk” Reagan’s racism? Nice try.

    The man got elected by appealing to bigots. His political and ideological predecessors and heirs got (and get) elected by appealing to bigots. If it weren’t for bigots, the present-day conservative movement would not exist.

    Even some liberals are beginning to look at Reagan through rose-colored glasses, the way they looked at Goldwater before him, and Robert A. Taft before that. Makes me crazy. The man was a completely evil person who put a sunny, congenial face on greed and bigotry.

  5. MikeEss
    November 20, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    “The man was a completely evil person who put a sunny, congenial face on greed and bigotry.”

    But, but, what about “It’s morning again in America”?…

    That really is the crucial difference between Reagan and HRM Bush II. Reagan was just grandfatherly enough that some people would let him slide. He was Big Brother dressed as Big Grandad.

    HRM Bush II? Not so much…

  6. Quiet Truths
    November 20, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Michael Dukakis appeared and spoke at the same fair where Reagan made his speech (a speech where he talked about how welfare recipients wanted to work and be productive – talk about your red meat to the racist base!).

    So I guess Dukakis is also a monster.

  7. Mnemosyne
    November 20, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Michael Dukakis appeared and spoke at the same fair where Reagan made his speech (a speech where he talked about how welfare recipients wanted to work and be productive – talk about your red meat to the racist base!).

    Let’s see: Ronald Reagan appears at the fair on the anniversary of the murder of three civil rights workers and talks about states’ rights.

    Michael Dukakis appears at the fair and talks about how America is for everyone.

    Gosh, yes, I can totally see how a “states’ rights” appeal to the people who were still pissed off that the federal government made them integrate their schools and let black people vote is exactly the same as making a plea for tolerance in the same venue.

  8. Leo
    November 20, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    I’m not sure which string Deroy is or what has to do with anything. Also not sure what “second string” means in this context. He’s not famous enough for you? Also, I don’t see where the quotes are mealymouthed, whatever that means. Deroy explains that Reagan made sure to sign a 25 year extension of the Civil Rights Act. He also signed the bill making MLK day a national holiday. These two issues have been touted as demonstrating Reagan’s racism, but when it came to his policy decisions as president, he was on the right side of those issues. But he’s still a racist at heart! Well, Deroy also provides examples of Reagan’s personal behavior that suggests he is far from eligible for membership in the KKK. Sounds like Deroy’s argument is pretty plausible. At least more plausible than Reagan being a Completely Evil Person. Ha.

  9. Leo
    November 20, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    Sorry, meant to quote:

    Leo: So some second-string black wingnut cherrypicks some mealymouthed quotes about tolerance, and that’s supposed to “debunk” Reagan’s racism? Nice try.

  10. MikeEss
    November 20, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    “At least more plausible than Reagan being a Completely Evil Person. Ha.”

    Ha, ha, ha! Who could ever have looked on that kindly, grandfatherly face and ever think “racist”. Why I’m sure Uncle Ronny just LOVED the Coloreds the Negroes the Black folks…

  11. Mnemosyne
    November 20, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Deroy explains that Reagan made sure to sign a 25 year extension of the Civil Rights Act. He also signed the bill making MLK day a national holiday. These two issues have been touted as demonstrating Reagan’s racism, but when it came to his policy decisions as president, he was on the right side of those issues.

    He also spent years destroying the social safety net using the excuse that it was being exploited by “welfare queens” who, coincidentally, just happened to all be black.

    I’m still laughing at the idea that you think that a Democratic Congress would have allowed Reagan to not pass that extension to the Civil Rights Act. Seriously, dude, are you even old enough to remember the 80s past A Flock of Seagulls?

    But, hey, he made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday! Clearly no one has ever done more for the black community.

  12. Bitter Scribe
    November 20, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    I’m not sure which string Deroy is or what has to do with anything.

    Are you kidding? You’re the one who provided the link to his NRO column!

    He’s not famous enough for you?

    Since I’ve never heard of him, any answer to that question other than “no” would be setting the bar for famousness pretty low.

    Also, I don’t see where the quotes are mealymouthed, whatever that means.

    MEALYMOUTHED adj. Unwilling to state facts or opinions simply or directly.

    Such as chasing the racist vote while uttering bland nothings about the equality of man.

    Well, Deroy also provides examples of Reagan’s personal behavior that suggests he is far from eligible for membership in the KKK.

    Not the highest of standards for the nation’s chief executive to meet.

    Look, I’m sure Reagan didn’t believe he was a racist, but he leaned on them politically. And his policies, almost without exception, went against the interests of black people whenever possible. So his beliefs count for very little compared with his actions.

  13. Leo
    November 20, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Bitter Scribe, I didn’t realize “black people” were a monolithic entity having one set of interests. My bad. Also, the whole elibgibility for KKK membership was supposed to be tongue and cheek. I think Reagan’s personal story makes the argumetn that he was personally racist pretty damn hard to swallow. With respect to “black people” and their interests and his policies, you can argue all you want.

  14. Sophist, FCD
    November 20, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    Bitter Scribe, I didn’t realize “black people” were a monolithic entity having one set of interests.

    When it comes to not being discriminated against because of their perceived race—yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s probably is a “monolithic” interest there. I’m just crazy like that.

  15. November 21, 2007 at 12:11 am

    I realize that getting some people here to read an NRO column is going to be challenging, but Deroy Murdock (Yes, he has really unfortunate view on waterboarding, but lets keep this about Reagan) debunks these charges better than anyone I’ve seen.

    If that’s a debunking, then it’s clearer than ever that Reagan was not only bad on civil rights, but that he was a personal racist as well.

  16. Quiet Truths
    November 21, 2007 at 12:14 am

    He also spent years destroying the social safety net using the excuse that it was being exploited by “welfare queens” who, coincidentally, just happened to all be black.

    And yet, social spending was higher when he left office than when he came in.

    I understand why left-wing people don’t like Ronald Reagan. He turned out to be an old-fashioned classical liberal of a sort that doesn’t make a whole lot of friends on the left-wing side of the spectrum, despite his early liberal leanings.

    But I don’t understand why this dislike always has to be justified by generalizations and myths whose basis in fact ranges from maybe-but-sketchy to just plain wrong. In the course of a long cultural and political career, Reagan established a solid reputation as a racial moderate. He was never the great champion of the poor and downtrodden, other than the victims of communism – granted.

    He’s now vilified by the left for failing to adhere to the “new” racial politics that you guys would like to see promulgated. (Adhere, heck; failing to ANTICIPATE.) It’s fine that you have your agenda, but seeing this kind of Reagan=racist nonsense doesn’t make me think of you as brave and progressive, it makes me think of you as historically kind of in the dark.

  17. Bolo
    November 21, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    He turned out to be an old-fashioned classical liberal of a sort that doesn’t make a whole lot of friends on the left-wing side of the spectrum, despite his early liberal leanings.

    Do you have support for this assertion?

  18. Quiet Truths
    November 21, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Which part do you need support for, Bolo? That he had early liberal leanings? That he didn’t make many friends on the left in his later career (he had plenty in early days)? Or that his politics were of the classical liberal variety?

    For the first one, the support would be pretty much any published biography of the man; it’s about as well-established as his birthplace, and equally controversial. For the second one, well, look around. How many lefties do you know who like the guy?

    For the third, I suspect you’re tripping over the word “liberal”. A classical liberal is not much like we would call a liberal today. There’s a pretty good overview here. Reagan talked about these ideas all the time; there’s a good interview of him from 1975 here.

  19. Mnemosyne
    November 21, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    In the course of a long cultural and political career, Reagan established a solid reputation as a racial moderate.

    You mean like when he went to Florida and told audiences about seeing “strapping black bucks” buying steaks with food stamps?

    For the third, I suspect you’re tripping over the word “liberal”. A classical liberal is not much like we would call a liberal today.

    In fact, a “classical liberal” is what we would call a “conservative” today. I understand why you guys are running so hard to escape the conservative label considering the destruction you’ve managed to wreak on the country in the mere 7 years that you’ve been in charge, but trying to claim that you’re “really” liberals and nothing like the Gingriches and DeLays who ran the country into the ground is pretty fucking cowardly.

  20. Quiet Truths
    November 22, 2007 at 1:50 am

    Mnemosyne, he didn’t say those words. If he was really as bad as you think he was, how come you have to insert words into quotes?

    You can characterize conservative discomfort with their labels however you want, but “classical liberal” has a history going back a century; it’s a real term, not something invented by some Republican spin meister.

    I’m not a conservative, so your personal attack is misdirected.

  21. False Flag Operative
    November 23, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    And yet, social spending was higher when he left office than when he came in.

    Not to mention that he pushed the national debt even higher. His spending surpassed those of Carter.

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