It’s customary to say good things about the dead.
Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court. He signed legislation for a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. He thawed relations with the Soviet Union and signed a nuclear weapons treaty. He was warm and amiable and had a good sense of humor. He liked horses.
Now let's talk about what he did to black people.
After taking office in 1981, Reagan began a sustained attack on the government’s civil rights apparatus, opened an assault on affirmative action and social welfare programs, embraced the white racist leaders of then-apartheid South Africa and waged war on a tiny, black Caribbean nation.
So thorough was Reagan’s attack on programs of importance to African Americans, that the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, an organization formed in the wake of Reagan’s attempt to neuter the official U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said he caused "an across-the-board breakdown in the machinery constructed by six previous administrations to protect civil rights."
America's move to the political right
During his two terms in office, Reagan captured, solidified and came to personify America’s move to the political right. His greatest legacy is as leader of that swing in the American political spectrum. That shift made “liberal” a dirty word and Democrats cower. What had been conservative became moderate. What was moderate was pushed to the left wing. The shift was so pronounced and profound that black America giddily embraced Bill Clinton despite his promotion of programs, criminal justice and welfare policies in particular, that would have been called racist and reactionary under Reagan.
"Ronald Reagan, it is fair to say, was really an anathema to the entire civil rights community and the civil rights agenda,” Ronald W. Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told BET.com just a few hours after Reagan died, at age 93, on Saturday.
Walters, in his book “White Nationalism/black Interests – Conservative Public Policy and the black Community,” argues that George W. Bush’s election in 2000 secured the domination of American politics “by the radical Conservative wing of the Republican party, a project begun when Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House in 1980.”
His overwhelming defeat of incumbent Jimmy Carter that year brought a new spirit to America, at least white America. The United States was still reeling in self-doubt after being run out of Vietnam. National shame was raw because 52 Americans had been held hostage by Iran from November 1979 until after Reagan’s election.
In 1984, he successfully campaigned for reelection on a “Morning in America” theme. But his presidency was a long and dreary night for African Americans. Consider this record. Reagan:
- Appointed conservative judges, like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who continue to issue rulings to the detriment of African Americans. Walters notes that just 2 percent of Reagan’s judicial appointments were black.
- Began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., near the site where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.
- Supported racism with remarks like those that characterized poor, black women as “welfare queens.”
- Fired U.S. Commission on Civil Rights members who were critical of his civil rights policies, including his strong opposition to affirmative action programs. One of the commissioners, Mary Frances Berry, who now chairs the Commission, recalls that the judge who overturned the dismissal did so because “you can’t fire a watchdog for biting.”
- Sought to limit and gut the Voting Rights Act.
- Slashed important programs like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) that provided needed assistance to black people.
- Appointed people like Clarence Thomas, who later became a horrible Supreme Court Justice, to the Equal Opportunity Commission; William Bradford Reynolds, as assistant attorney general for civil rights; and others who implemented policies that hurt black people.
- Doubted the integrity of civil rights leaders, saying, “Sometimes I wonder if they really mean what they say, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they're victims of prejudice."
- Tried to get a tax exemption for Bob Jones University, which was then a segregated college in South Carolina .
- Defended former Sen. Jesse Helms’ “sincerity” when that arch villain of black interest questioned Martin Luther King’s loyalty.
The federal budget during the Reagan years tells the tale in stark, dollar terms. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as reported by the Los Angeles Times as Reagan left office in 1989, programs that helped black America suffered greatly during his tenure.
Using information from the Center, the Times published a table showing “some reductions in social programs under the Reagan administration; in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation”:
Frustration with African Americans
Despite this record, Reagan expressed frustration, during a 1989 CBS interview, about his relations with African Americans. "One of the great things that I have suffered is this feeling,” he said, “that somehow I'm on the other side" of the civil rights movement.
He also was on the wrong side of international issues important to African Americans. Reagan crushed the government of Grenada in 1983 because he felt it had fallen too far into the orbit of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Grenada is a tiny place, smaller in size than Philadelphia, with fewer people than Peoria. His trumped-up excuse was American medical students on the Caribbean island nation were threatened by government officials he called “a brutal group of leftist thugs.”
He outraged African Americans and others by relating to apartheid South Africa as a friend and ally. His program of constructive engagement amounted to a go-slow policy under which apartheid was criticized but essentially tolerated. It was a policy that delayed the independence of Namibia, then controlled by South Africa, blocked United Nations’ condemnations of South African attacks on nearby African countries and permitted American corporate support for the racist régime. He was loyal to South Africa because, as he told CBS during an interview early in 1981, it was "a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."
Even as the majority of the American people came to oppose South Africa’s racist repression, Reagan stood by his friend. Pushed by black leaders and organizations, Congress passed sanctions against South Africa. Reagan, on the wrong side of history, vetoed the bill. Congress, to Reagan’s shame, overrode the veto.
The gushy tributes to Reagan might be understandable eulogies, but they also are a testament to the persistence of two Americas, one black and one white. The two don’t see things the same and the reaction to Reagan is just one more example.