AS PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN visibly aged in office, skin wrinkling and memory fading, his abundant hair remained deep black and glossy—a perennial topic of wonder to gossip columnists and shallow journalists. But late-night TV host Johnny Carson offered a novel explanation: “Reagan doesn’t dye his hair—he bleaches his face.”
Now, if there was anything Ronald Reagan didn’t need, it was whitenizing. The one-time New Deal Democrat and former Screen Actors Guild president had, by the mid-1960s, evolved into the most effective spokesman for white supremacy in postwar years. Through the skillful use of imagery, code words and political action, the Reagan administrations—in both California when he was governor and then in Washington—managed to thwart and even reverse Black aspirations and goals in the United States and in Africa.
Reagan struck a deep chord with whites who felt their position threatened, as well as with others who were simply fearful of Black anger. They wanted an escape from this new, changing America, and Reagan offered it to them. His most famous campaign TV commercial was “It’s Morning in America,” an idyll set in a peaceful, dewy, vaguely pre-integration neighborhood that implied the real America. The fact that such an America never existed made no difference.
All this would be quaint history were it not for the fact that Reagan, who died in 2004, remains a living icon. Current Republicans can’t mention him often enough. In recent Republican presidential debates, Reagan’s name was reverently invoked 40 times as each candidate sought to claim his crown as leader of the right.
Reagan’s image and his policies remain the inspiration and the blueprint for conservatives today, including John McCain. Despite a genuine Blue Tide that started with the 2006 midterm election and an emboldened movement, every progressive politician and Democratic candidate has to deal with the ghost of Reagan. He initiated aggressive dismantling of both the New Deal–inspired social safety net and government support for racial justice. Congressional conservatives can be expected to continue that course.
The remarkable success of the Obama candidacy to date shows a widespread desire to break out of America’s 400-year racial trap, but the campaign has not been Reagan-free. As this issue of ColorLines went to production in September, political observers were noting that Obama’s run to the White House depended largely on the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats. Those formerly reliable blue-collar Democratic voters, threatened by social change and Black gains, switched to Reagan in 1980 and continue to vote against their own economic and sociopolitical interests.
Reagan was and remains the embodiment of modern conservatism. Among other things, he managed to advance a strategy of racial containment—paralleling the international doctrine of communist containment—by couching it in social and economic language: welfare, school choice, privatization, personal freedom and responsibility, and, above all, crime. By cloaking these concepts in his benign personality, Reagan used these seemingly race-neutral principles to attack communities of color and the Black community in particular with devastating results. But this has been forgotten by many Americans as Reagan has become an icon for conservatives.
Conservatives have had such a monopoly on his image that few Americans today remember that while running for governor in California in 1966, Reagan promised to dismantle the Fair Housing Act, saying, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so.”
And few remember the event that Sidney Blumenthal wrote about in The Guardian in 2003: “After the Republican convention in 1980, Reagan traveled to the county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, where, in 1964, three Freedom Riders had been slain by the Ku Klux Klan. Before an all-white crowd of tens of thousands, Reagan declared: ‘I believe in states’ rights’.”
Reagan later told friends he regretted the Neshoba speech, although whether that was a moral regret or a tactical one wasn’t clear. But even if he regretted all his previous words and actions, his presidency was characterized by pointedly anti-Black actions. During his tenure in office, Reagan: turned over the political leadership of the Justice Department’s civil rights division to William Bradford Reynolds, an ideological enemy of civil rights; ordered the U.S Department of Agriculture to shelve any claims of discrimination by Black farmers; intensified the War on Drugs and other campaigns that criminalized large segments of the Black community; opposed congressional sanctions on South Africa; and stigmatized families on welfare as undeserving.
To counter charges of racism, Reagan cultivated and rewarded Black conservatives. In 1982, he appointed a young Clarence Thomas to the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he remained for eight years. Today, Thomas is a Supreme Court justice, and Black Republicans like Lee H. Walker have insisted that Blacks did well under Reagan. But the majority of the Black community did not. Black male unemployment, for example, jumped to 25 percent by the end of the Reagan decade, and the total Black poverty rate had reached three times the poverty rate for whites by 1989.
In some instances, Black suffering was simply a byproduct—albeit a predictable one—of an economic ideology, but the effect was the same as if Reagan had singled out Blacks. Take his war on unions. As labor professor Gordon Lafer points out, for workers without college degrees, unionization can be more important for supporting themselves and their families than additional schooling. As the Reagan pro-business agenda achieved its goal of suppressing unions and driving down wages, the Black community suffered the worst.
Reagan’s attack on low-cost housing had a similar result.
When Reagan died, housing expert Peter Dreier wrote, “Reagan’s most dramatic cut was for low-income housing subsidies…Between 1980 and 1989, HUD’s budget authority was cut from $74 billion to $19 billion in constant dollars.” The result was an upsurge in substandard housing arrangements and a huge increase in homelessness, with an unequal burden falling on the Black community. In 2007, HUD’s budget stood at $33 billion, far less than pre-Reagan, with much of that amount going to homeowners, not to renters.
The devastation wasn’t confined to the nation’s cities, though. In 1982, the Reagan administration shut down the civil rights office of the Department of Agriculture. Not by coincidence, during the following two years, the USDA disbursed over a billion dollars to 16,000 farmers nationwide to buy land; of those, only 209 were Black. The independent Civil Rights Commission concluded that the USDA was “a catalyst in the decline of the [B]lack farmer.” A class action lawsuit ultimately resulted in a judgment of $2.3 billion to the farmers, concluding that the Reagan administration did indeed deny credit on the basis of race. Today, there are fewer than 18,000 Black farmers nationwide.
At the same time as the Reagan White House was attacking Blacks in the U.S., the president frequently sided against members of his administration to shore up apartheid and suppress many African liberation movements. He consistently opposed taking any stand against the Pretoria regime and even eased the arms embargo on its government. His administration created a policy called “constructive engagement,” which meant no sanctions. In a 1984 statement to the U.N. Special Committee against Apartheid, Richard Knight of the American Committee on Africa quoted a report that showed that military equipment sales to South Africa jumped tenfold between 1979 and 1984.
These actions did not exactly pass unnoticed. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu characterized the Reagan legacy as “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.”
When the pressure for sanctions grew too great, even within the Republican Party, Reagan refused to relent, claiming sanctions would hurt Black workers. In 1986, he vetoed a congressional sanctions vote, stating, “the U.S. must stay and build, not cut and run.” When Congress overrode the veto, Reagan made sure that the law was barely carried out.
It may be that the usually genial Reagan didn’t harbor any animosity toward people of color. It’s just as likely that Reagan’s conservative vision of the world simply didn’t include people of color, who were incidental to his grander white image. In one radio discussion following Reagan’s death, a caller named Alex, who edited an American Indian newspaper during the Reagan presidency, observed, “I think that [American] Indian people, we were just kind of extras in the movie that was running in his mind.”
Whether he was benignly neglectful or a full-blown white racist, the results were universally dreadful. Reagan gave new life to white supremacy—administratively, militarily and symbolically. By casting white supremacy in the jargon of economic and individual liberties, Reagan drew white Southerners, resentful workers and whites fleeing the cities into a powerful Republican coalition that until 2006 dominated U.S. politics. Today that coalition is under attack from a new generation, as well as independent voters rejecting the politics of George Bush. But conservatism is hardly dead. As long as a sizable constituency clings to a nostalgia for that white supremacy, politicians like Ronald Reagan and his heirs will be able to exploit it.
Alec Dubro first published in Rolling Stone 40 years ago and today writes for labor and nonprofits in Washington, D.C.