Like most African Americans old enough to shudder with revulsion when they remember Ronald Reagan’s presidency, I won’t be joining the hagiographical celebration of the late conservative saint’s 100th birthday that is scheduled to take place this weekend. There will simply be too many lies.
The celebrations won’t be talking about it, but neither the passage of time nor President Barack Obama’s oft-stated admiration for Reagan’s transformational politics can make me forget how the Gipper used the fears and resentments of angry white people to get elected.
I could make a long, long list of the signals Reagan sent to let racists know that they would have a friend in the White House. Among them was his decision — urged by, among others, the affably bigoted former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott — to deliver the first major speech of his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s’ ugliest cases of racist violence. Reagan gave a ringing declaration of his support for “states’ rights” — code words for resistance to black advances, and clearly understood by white Southerners.
Then, as I wrote in a column for Time magazine some years ago, there was Reagan’s attempt in 1981 to reverse a long-standing policy of denying tax-exempt status to private schools that practice racial discrimination and to grant an exemption to Bob Jones University, which at the time prohibited interracial dating and other sorts of race mixing.
True to their whitewashing of the Gipper’s record on racial issues, his fans won’t mention that when Lott suggested that Reagan’s regime take BJU’s side in a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, Reagan responded, “We ought to do it.” Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Reagan was dead wrong and reinstated the IRS’s power to deny the university’s tax exemption.
No, you won’t hear any of that during this weekend’s celebration. Or anything about Reagan’s nasty insinuations about welfare queens or Martin Luther King Jr. supposedly being under the sway of the Communist Party.
Collective amnesia has set in. We already see that strange malady at work in Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s preposterous recollections of the supposedly benevolent role played by the White Citizens’ Council and the ignorant rants of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) about the Founding Fathers’ commitment to abolishing slavery. It’s manifest in the resurgent demand for states’ rights that’s fueling the legal challenges to Obama’s health care reforms that will end up in the Supreme Court, as well as in a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the states to overturn congressional mandates.
The Reagan revelers will no doubt claim that people like me are trying to rain on their parade by bringing all this up — and for once, they will be right. Some wonderful things happened while Reagan was president, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and he deserves credit for his role in bringing them about. But some truly terrible things, for which our country is still paying a price, also happened on Reagan’s watch and at his behest, and they, too, should be remembered. America will never become the shining city on the hill that Reagan rhapsodized about until it can come to terms with the dark side of its past.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.