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Smiling racism.

Pundits have offered a variety of explanations for Ronald Reagan's enduring popularity, but none of them encompass the whole truth. There is one explanation, though, that is rarely written about in the press or even discussed in polite company. Reagan's dirty little secret is that he has found a way to make racism palatable and politically potent again.

That his policies are not only unfair but also demonstrably racist is crystal clear. Early in the 1980 campaign when he spoke in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he sent out a signal. In the town where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by Klansmen in 1964, Reagan told the South that he favored states' rights. When it was pointed out that he was glorifying a principle that had been used to fight the drive for civil rights, Reagan used the gambit that would become a trademark of his Presidency. He said that his words hadn't meant what they surely conveyed.

There is no need to recapitulate Reagan's civil rights record. It is enough to note two of the strongest signals he has sent out: support for tax exemptions for schools that discriminate on the basis of race, and opposition to busing and affirmative action. For Reagan, the facts don't matter, only the message does. Campaigning for Jesse Helms earlier this fall in Charlotte, North Carolina, he proclaimed that busing does not work. No matter that the experience of the city in which he was speaking directly contradicted him. The Charlotte Observer promptly published a stinging editorial pointing out his error and rebuking him for sullying an accomplishment of which the city is justly proud, but the message of where Reagan stood had already been flashed around the country on the nightly news shows.

Besides symbolically expressing a hostility to the aspirations of black people, Reagan has waged a cruel and successful war on their pocketbooks. True, his Administration's policies have hurt all poor people, without regard to color: the top 60 percent of Americans have benefited, while the bottom 40 percent have suffered. But blacks have been hurt the most. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently reported that "the average black family in every income strata--from the poor to the affluent--suffered a decline in its disposable income and standard of living since 1980"; that the hardest hit were black families in which one parent works and the other takes care of the children, losing an average of more than $2,000 in disposable income from 1980 to 1984; that the poverty rate among blacks is almost 36 percent, the highest since 1968; and that while long-term unemployment among whites has increased 1.5 percent since 1980, among blacks it has increased by a whopping 72 percent.

For white audiences Reagan takes the rough edge off his policies by the adroit use of "photo opportunities." A few years ago, after reading that a cross was burned on the lawn of a black family in suburban Maryland, he helicoptered out to the house, with the White House press corps in tow, to say what a bad thing it was. Recently, he and Nancy Reagan went by motorcade along Martin Luther King Boulevard in southeast Washington to dine with the family of a black second-grade student with whom he had been corresponding. After he had shared a chicken dinner and delivered his gifts of jelly beans and tickets to the Jackson Victory Tour concert that night, Reagan posed for pictures with the boy and his parents. It was another example of Reagan's technique of denying the undeniable in order to dupe the gullible. How can a man who shows such concern and consorts so easily with blacks be a racist? It was a shrewd way of sending the message that unremitting opposition to the true interests of black people doesn't make one a mean racist.

Haynes Johnson of The Washington Post, one of the few journalists who has written about the political effectiveness of Reagan's approach, recently interviewed Merle Black, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. After discussing several studies indicating that racism motivates some people to become Republicans, Black told Johnson:

Race is very important, and especially for today's students. They've been to desegregated schools, and they've had some experience with affirmative action programs and they do not like them. Every one of them has a friend who didn't get into UNC who had higher board scores than blacks who did get in here. So a lot of their experience has made them very sensitive to racial things, and when Reagan comes out and says the things he says, boy, they like that.

Reagan's kind of civilized the racial issue. He's taken what [Alabama Gov. George c.] Wallace never could do and made it accpetable. It fits in with their sense of perceived injustice, with what they see as the status of being a white person not being as high as it was 15, 20 or 30 years ago.

For the most part, Americans don't want to admit that they are racists and they certainly don't want to tell that to political journalists or pollsters, as Tom Bradley's sad experience in the California gubernatorial race demonstrated. So Reagan has unleashed an invisible monster on American politics in a way that makes him virtually unassailable.

Southern politicians used to promise their redneck constituents that they would "keep the niggers in their place," and when elected, they proceeded to do just that. It has been reported that after losing an early election to just such a politician, George Wallace vowed never to be "outniggered" again. Well, it is clear that Ronald reagan is not going to be "outcolored."
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Title Annotation:Ronald Reagan's race policies
Author:Wilkins, Roger
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Nov 3, 1984
Words:951
Previous Article:The big issues.
Next Article:Minority report.
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