Harold Pollack has a great article over at Ten Miles Square, The Butler and Ronald Reagan’s Race Problem. The film is loosely based upon the life of Eugene Allen, who retired as White House butler. Some of the film depicts Ronald Reagan when he was in the White House, and he is presented sympathetically. This is to be expected; everyone agrees that Reagan was a personable fellow. But four conservative writers wrote an OpEd in last week’s Washington Post, What The Butler Gets Wrong About Ronald Reagan and Race.
Pollack points out that Reagan gets a much better presentation than he deserves. But even he presents Reagan in a more positive light than I think he deserves. He claims that Reagan’s political philosophy just happened to appeal to racists. Reagan believed in certain libertarian ideals and those allowed bigots to be bigots. I don’t see this. If you really aren’t racist, then you would shy away from positions that appeal primarily to racists. At the very least, you would make a very big show of being against racism. I didn’t hear that from Reagan just as I don’t now hear it from Rand Paul. He will always add statements like, “I personally believe that racism is a bad business strategy.” That’s pretty weak tea and it works effectively like a dog whistle to racists. What they hear is, “I have to say that, but I’m with you!”
The OpEd brings up one typical bit of dog whistle politics, that pretty much everyone knows: the first stop in his 1980 campaign was at a fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi where the three civil rights workers were murdered by the KKK in 1964. The topic of the speech? States’ rights! The best apologia that the writers can offer is this, “But the former California governor, a strong believer in federalism, had been talking about states’ rights since the early days of his political career.” That’s right! And Reagan had been using racist politics since the early days of his political career. It is not just, as Pollack notes, that the comments were insensitive. No man of Reagan’s political brilliance could make such a boneheaded mistake. He knew exactly what he was doing.
Think back on the 1980 campaign. What allowed Reagan to win? The “Reagan Democrats.” These were white northern Democrats who voted against their economic interest because they were angry about blacks and all the advantages they were getting like poverty, lead poison, and short life expectancies. This was when the word “liberal” became vilified. That was when it became “tax and spend liberal.” And everyone knew who was being taxed and who was being spent on, even if what everyone knew wasn’t true then and is even less true now.
So was Reagan a racist? Let’s just look at his attitude toward African Americans. Reagan would never have been personally rude to a black person or otherwise treated them badly. I’m sure that he actually did have black friends. But his mind overflowed with stereotypes. And he was more than willing to demagogue those stereotypes for political gain. We are all members of our society and we can’t help but be tainted by racist thinking. You can fight that or not. But using it in such a calculated manner makes you a special kind of villain and Reagan was one of those villains.
Pollack ends his article by rightly noting:
That gets to the very heart of the problem with conservatives—even intellectuals like those who wrote the article. They can’t admit that past conservative icons were racist because the movement is still racist. Think back on Romney’s 47% comments. It turned out that this group was actually mostly retired white people. But the subtext was that it was lazy dark skinned people. It was just the most recent iteration of the welfare queen in a Cadillac.