In this unusual political year, there has been an effort to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. This is the ninth in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
National Geographic conducts a tour called “Holy Land: Past, Present and Future.” After each site visit or meeting, the group convenes and the two tour leaders, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, say “Here is the Israeli narrative on this issue”/”Here is the Palestinian narrative on this issue.” Needless to say, there are big differences between the two narratives, but the level of trust between the leaders is so great that every one in the group begins to believe, rightly or wrongly, that finding a path to understanding and reconciliation is a possibility.
There are two Ronald Reagan narratives, and the gap between them seems almost as large as that between the Israelis and Palestinians. On the one hand, there is Reagan, the saint, the apostle of American optimism, and the man who brought down the Soviet Union. On the other, there is Reagan, the delusional right-wing racist and reactionary.
Unfortunately, we do not have the levels of trust that made vigorous discussion – even heated, but productive, arguments – possible on the Holy Land tour. In our culture, people talk past one another and speak only to those who agree with them. The skill of active listening is increasingly lost.
Which brings us to a basic question: does Ronald Reagan belong on a list of white people who have worked to make black lives miserable and impeded racial progress? For most of the people covered in this series, the answer to that question is a clear and unequivocal “yes.” For Reagan, it is more nuanced, but the damage that he did was substantial.
Was Reagan a “racist?” He was not, and, unlike many others, he was genuinely pained whenever someone accused him of racial animus. In a Washington Post review of the film, The Butler, a group of Reagan historians list the good things that Reagan did for black people, starting when he was a young boy and his father forbade him to see Birth of a Nation.
But these good deeds pale in comparison to Reagan’s actions as a candidate, governor and president. The best summary of the things that put Reagan on this list is a simple, but very insightful, statement by Rosalyn Carter: “I think he makes us comfortable with our prejudices.” And so he did. As a result, there was a lot of what is known as collateral damage.
As a rich man living in a Hollywood bubble, the social distance between Reagan and “ordinary people” was enormous. The result was that those people, especially if they were among “the others,” became an abstraction. These others included poor people, minorities and, disastrously when he became president, gay people.
As a reactionary and a strong believer in American exceptionalism, Reagan surrounded himself with like-minded people. Many of them did not have his benign attitudes on race. They saw a huge political opportunity in scapegoating black people, and Reagan had no compunctions about going along with the program, only to have hurt feelings when the reality was pointed out to him.
As both a candidate and governor of California and then president, Reagan hammered away at a set of themes that became an implicit equation, one that now drives Republican politics: government (bad) = taxes (bad) = welfare (bad) = black people (bad). On the campaign trail, Reagan spoke of the “young buck” buying vodka with food stamps and the “welfare queen” riding around in her Cadillac.
Three decades after Reagan left office, these are the core themes of the Republican Party. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, in addressing a college group in 2016, spoke of welfare, which no longer existed, as a “hammock” instead of a safety net.
Reagan also said “You can’t guarantee someone’s rights by imposing on someone else’s.” There is a straight line from that statement to the dangerous, but now widely held view that white people are the true victims of racism in this country. Dangerous because, once a group has defined itself as a victim, there are no constraints on its behavior and no barriers to it becoming a predator, especially when its members are given control of the levers of power.
So, does Reagan belong on the Black History Month list? Yes, he does. The nice white man, who was wounded to be called a bigot, opposed every civil rights law that he ever saw; said that housing discrimination was a state matter, and then tried to repeal California’s open housing law when he became governor of the state; opened his campaign in Neshoba County, Miss., the scene of the murder of three civil rights workers; said he wasn’t against civil rights, just “busing” and “quotas”; said that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was a result of “compromising law and order”; and appointed large numbers of people to key positions, in which they vigorously worked to roll back the social and civil rights gains of previous decades.
Reagan earned his spot on the list.
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.