An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.
The truth is more complicated.
In reality, Reagan strategists decided to spend the week following the 1980 Republican convention courting African-American votes. Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.
On Friday, Krugman decides that he can't let that pass.
Indeed, you do really have to feel sorry for Reagan. He just kept making those innocent mistakes.
When he went on about the welfare queen driving her Cadillac, and kept repeating the story years after it had been debunked, some people thought he was engaging in race-baiting. But it was all just an innocent mistake.
When, in 1976, he talked about working people angry about the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store, he didn’t mean to play into racial hostility. True, as The New York Times reported,
The ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never used the expression “young buck,” which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man.
But the appearance that Reagan was playing to Southern prejudice was just an innocent mistake.
Slate's Tim Noah gives us a little backstory here. Brooks, apparently, isn't just talking out of his ass as usual. He's gunning for Paul Krugman.
The Reagan story forms the centerpiece of Krugman's argument in The Conscience of a Liberal that race, far more than economics or foreign policy or "values," is what gave Republicans an electoral majority for most of the past 40 years. At the end of his calumny column, when Brooks elaborates on the "slur," it sounds an awful lot as though he's really talking about Krugman's book: "It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy."
And today, Bob Herbert steps into the fray to back Krugman up.
He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.
And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.
Let's leave aside the fact that Brooks should know better than to launch these pebbles at Krugman, and focus for a moment at the substance of his "outrage". Brooks isn't as clever as he thinks he is, but he's clever enough. He's careful to call accusations of racism on the part of Reagan a "slur" carefully turning the rhetoric of bigotry around to reflect badly on the part of liberals. Reagan gets to be the victim of racism by being wrongly identified as racist. He also locates the "slur" in a conspiracy that sees a racist agenda where none exists. Liberals can cry wolf but the worst one can accuse Reagan of is being "callous."
Brooks paints a picture of a somewhat chaotic moment in the campaign, which gives the illusion of detail but manages to avoid laying blame at the feet of any one person. "The decision was made to go to Neshoba. Exactly who made the decision is unclear." But, oops! That sticky phrase "states rights" made its way into the speech, and by the way don't you dare imply that the Greatest President Ever was a racist.
Brooks even attempts to cast doubt on the character of White Southern Voters in 1980 referring to the "alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters." It's all part of Brooks' schtick. It's interesting to read that sentence while listening to This American Life's rerun of "Harold" which documents the extraordinary election of Harold Washington. During a radio interview, a caller called asking Harold if he would be replacing the elevators with vines once elected. But in Bobo's world, problems don't really exist until those partisan liberals start their hype.
Krugman and Herbert do a pretty good job of demolishing Brooks in highlighting all of Reagan's best moments. But they miss the real problem with Brooks. Brooks is basically dishonest. He'd probably be forced to concede every point made by his two more able colleagues, but it wouldn't matter. Each instance, rather than evidence of institutionalized racism, is merely a far more benign policy grossly misconstrued by partisan liberals. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter to him whether Reagan was a racist or not; it's more about casting doubt on what constitutes racism in the first place.