19, 2002, 8:45 a.m. Reagan,
Lott, and Race Baiting
By Steven Hayward
magazine's premier race-baiter, Jack White, is using the Trent Lott controversy
as a means of attacking Republicans across the board as a racist party.
And above all he can't resist attacking Ronald Reagan.
Lott was among
those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in
Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered
in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing
declaration of his support for "states' rights" a code
word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern
Here is what Reagan
What we have to
do is bring back the recognition that the people of this country can
solve its problems. I still believe the answer to any problem lies with
the people. I believe in state's rights and I believe in people
doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and
at the private level. 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. (Emphasis added.)
To be sure, it is
difficult to imagine that Reagan was oblivious to the historical baggage
of the phrase "states' rights" in Mississippi, and it cannot
be ruled out that he was conscious of the problematic implication of his
choice of words, just as Jimmy Carter was not presumed innocent of his
use of "ethnic purity" in 1976. But "states' rights"
was a sound principle of federalism that was debased by Democratic
party rule in the south, for which it is not Republicans who owe an apology.
Reagan had a long and well-known record of criticizing centralized government
power, and this is how the media at the time interpreted his statement.
"Most of those at the rally," the New York Times reported,
"apparently regarded the statement as having been made in that context."
And as a westerner Reagan had fully associated himself with the "Sagebrush
Rebellion," for whom "states' rights" had no racial content,
but rather meant wresting control of land from Washington. This was far
from an outlandish or minority view. The same day Reagan made his "states'
rights" remark in Mississippi, the National Governors Association
issued what the Associated Press described as "a militant call for
reduced federal involvement in state and local affairs." Arizona's
liberal Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt wrote in a New York Times
op-ed article that "It is time to take hard look at 'states' rights'
and responsibilities and to sort out the respective functions
of the federal government and the states." I missed where Jack White
added Babbitt to his roster of racists (never mind Carter's calculated
appeal to "ethnic purity" in 1976).
To liberals, however,
employing the phrase "states' rights" in any context is to waive
the bloody shirt of racism and segregation. Little time was wasted in
accusing Reagan not simply of pandering to old-fashioned segregationist
sentiment in the south, but of actively sympathizing with it. Patricia
Harris, Carter's secretary of Health and Human Services, told a steelworkers'
union conference in early August: "I will not attempt to explain
why the KKK found the Republican candidate and the Republican platform
compatible with the philosophy and guiding principles of that notorious
organization." (A KKK chapter in Louisiana had scored some cheap
publicity by endorsing Reagan in 1980, which endorsement Reagan immediately
and forcefully rejected.) But, Harris added, when Reagan speaks before
black audiences many blacks "will see the specter of a white sheet
behind him." Andrew Young went even further, saying that Reagan's
remarks seemed "like a code word to me that it's going to be all
right to kill niggers when he's President." Coretta Scott King managed
to top Young: "I am scared that if Ronald Reagan gets into office,
we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi
Party." Maryland Congressman Parren Mitchell, a leader of the Congressional
Black Caucus, said that " Reagan represents a distinct danger to
black Americans." Reagan, it should be noted, received the endorsement
of several black leaders in 1980, including the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy,
Martin Luther King's successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership
Council, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, another prominent cleric from the
civil rights movement.
Even the bastions
of media liberalism knew that attacking Reagan as a racist was wrong.
The New Republic: "President Carter has made a grave moral
error in trying to portray Ronald Reagan as a racist." Carter's statements
"are frightful distortions, bordering on outright lies." Washington
Post reporter Richard Harwood wrote that "There is nothing in
Reagan's record to support the charge that he was 'racist.'" The
editorial page of the Post said that "This description [as
a racist] doesn't fit Mr. Reagan."
attack on Reagan in 1980 backfired badly against Jimmy Carter, and contributed
to Carter's defeat. As in 1980, liberals may be about to overreach on
the Lott affair in much the same way, so long as Republicans will follow
Reagan's example of standing on their principles.