Reagan revisionism can’t whitewash his history with blacks

OPINION - Michael Reagan argues that his father was more of a friend to black people than President Obama...

What a way to mark Martin Luther King Day. Michael Reagan, son of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, chose January 17 to suggest the unspeakable. On the Fox News website, Reagan argued that his father was more of a friend to black people than President Obama. He even suggested that he “could make an even stronger case for my father, Ronald Reagan, as ‘our first black president’”, the way that Clinton was called America’s first black president.

Either Michael Reagan is out of his mind, living in a fantasy world, or he is engaging in the whitewashing of his father’s troubling legacy on race.

According to Reagan, his father attended a colorblind college, and let his black teammates sleep at the Reagan house rather than sleep on the bus after a segregated hotel denied them a room. Under his father’s administration, he claimed, black unemployment fell, income rose, and the black middle class thrived. In contrast, Reagan argued that black unemployment has increased under Obama.

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“Today, as our nation honor’s [sic] Dr. King, less than a month before the hundredth birthday of Ronald Reagan, it’s fitting to note that Ronald Reagan did more to improve the lives of African-Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln,” Michael Reagan said. “Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that America’s first black president has made life worse for us all — and especially for black Americans. History does not judge presidents by the color of their skin, but by the content of their policies.

Now let’s return to the real world. In reality, the Reagan legacy is replete with examples of disrespect and outright hostility towards African-Americans. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which prohibited the public carrying of firearms. The law was passed specifically as a direct response to the Black Panther Party.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, he conjured up the racist and sexist image of the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” as anecdotal evidence of fraud in the welfare system. “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands,” Reagan said. “And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” The “welfare queen” fed into the worst stereotypes of black poverty and sexually promiscuous women.

When he ran for the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the Klan murdered three civil rights workers 16 years earlier. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, an African-American and two Jewish Americans, were murdered during “Freedom Summer,” which was devoted to voter registration of blacks.

“I believe in states’ rights…. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment,” Reagan said at the Neshoba County Fair. He also promised to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.” Reagan’s speech was a wink and a nod to pro-segregation Southern whites who wanted to keep black people in their place like the good old days. This was a deliberate strategy, like Nixon, to polarize voters along racial lines without even mentioning race. In courting Dixiecrats, Republicans had given up on the black vote. And according to Reagan, the Voting Rights Act, which gave blacks the right to vote, was “humiliating to the South.”

Once in office, President Reagan continued to use black folks as his whipping boy. He signed the Martin Luther King holiday into law, but African-Americans suffered under his tenure in office. Reagan stepped up the war on drugs, which was really a war against people of color. He waged an assault on labor unions, and America’s homeless grew to more than 2 million. Reagan cut programs of importance to African-Americans, slashed low-income housing under HUD, and social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps that disproportionately impacted black people. He attacked the government’s civil rights infrastructure, sought to gut the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, and waged war on the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. Reagan even befriended the white supremacist government in South Africa, and vetoed a bill to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime. Congress overrode the veto.

Reagan also questioned the integrity of civil rights leaders he accused of “leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice.” And he defended Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) when the lawmaker questioned Martin Luther King’s patriotism. He tried to secure tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University, then a segregated college in South Carolina.

Reagan appointed conservative judges who were hostile to the interests of black people, such as Antonin Scalia, and appointed an enemy of civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Reagan also ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shelve discrimination claims by black farmers. Most of all, President Reagan gave Clarence Thomas a job, appointing the current Supreme Court Justice to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And the African-American community has been grappling with the consequences of that unfortunate decision ever since.

In a 1989 interview, Reagan said “One of the great things that I have suffered is this feeling that somehow I’m on the other side” of the civil rights movement. We can only wonder why. Meanwhile, Michael Reagan’s half-brother, Ron Reagan, claims in a new book that President Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease while in office. I suppose that is plausible, though I don’t want to get in the middle of someone’s family feud. One thing is for certain — Ronald Reagan was no “friend” of black people. With Reagan’s 100th birthday coming in February, the whitewashing process is only beginning.