WALTER FIELDS: No tears for Reagan
By Walter Fields
Excuse me if I don’t shed any tears over the passing of former President Ronald Reagan. While the news of the 40th president’s death brought on a flood of sentimentality over the nation’s media this past weekend, I could not help but recall what the Reagan presidency really meant for Black Americans. Similar to what occurred upon the death of Richard Nixon, amnesia has set upon journalists as they recall Reagan’s era; choosing to indulge in idol worship rather than serious reflection on the former president’s policies.
The 1980 presidential election was the first that I was eligible to cast a ballot. Four years earlier I had to observe the Carter-Ford contest on the sidelines because I was only 17 years old when the election fell during my senior year in high school. I recall how desperate I was as a college student in 1980 to cast a ballot for President Carter’s reelection, despite some real disappointment with the former Georgia governor’s tenure in the White House, but sensing a cataclysmic disaster for Black people under the unabashedly conservative and right wing agenda of Ronald Reagan.
My memories of the Hollywood icon as television’s Death Valley Day’s pitchman did little to ease my fears for what his election would mean for Blacks. In fact, I remembered well my anger as a youth when I first saw the film Sante Fe Trail, a 1940 flick starring Reagan that was a shamelessly racist and historically inaccurate telling of the capture of abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry. I figured that anyone who would knowingly participate in such a fraud was capable of much worse if elected leader of the so-called “free world."
As the election approached all indicators were that the 1980’s would test the resolve of Blacks, perhaps in a way unlike no other period since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” I had already witnessed the beginning of the assault on hard won civil rights gains when two years earlier the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Allan Bakke, a white medical school applicant, who successfully challenged the University of California’s affirmative action program for medical school admissions.
My fears were not baseless. Ronald Reagan, with the precision of a maniacal surgeon, began to dissect two decades of civil rights gains and set the stage for the rise of a reactionary, and patently racist, politics that still fills the nation’s air with a noticeable stench. While Nixon may have given birth to the “southern strategy”, appealing to white anxiety through thinly veiled racist messaging, Reagan perfected the art. I recall my utter disgust when he launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi and failed to even acknowledge the injustices of an earlier era that resulted in the killing of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three young civil rights workers. It was a purposeful snub by Reagan, who did express his support for “state’s rights”, designed to send a message to southern whites that the concerns and sentiments of Blacks were of no consequence to him. In a very real sense, the angry white man found refuge during the Reagan years.
Who can forget his attempt to reverse the long-standing policy of denying tax-exempt status to private school that practice discrimination, and his effort to provide an exemption to Bob Jones University? The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against Reagan and reinstated the authority of the Internal Revenue Service to deny the university the exemption. It was an “in your face” gesture toward Blacks revealed the depths of the president’s racial animus.
We should also not forget that Ronald Reagan aligned himself with the apartheid government of Pretoria, choosing to pursue a policy of “constructive engagement” with white minority rule over the interests of the country’s Black majority. His use of Cold War rhetoric and the language of anti-communism were a convenient façade for the racist underpinnings of a foreign policy devoid of a concern for human rights and positioned against Black self-determination in sub-Saharan Africa.
Reagan’s attitude was no different on the domestic front. Under the guise of “devolution” or new federalism, he proceeded to attempt to dismantle domestic programs that had a disproportionate impact upon Blacks and the poor. He reduced the affirmative action requirements of corporate recipients of federal contracts and cutback oversight; diminished the role of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in filing discrimination claims; and drastically cut the federal and state welfare rolls under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The anti-Black, anti-poor venom that came out of the Reagan White House spared no one. Even children were not safe. At one point the administration reduced federal funding for school lunches, going so far as to classify ketchup as a vegetable.
In the area of housing, his appointment of Sam Pierce as Secretary of HUD left the federal hosing department in a shambles. Reagan was so distant from Blacks he even confused Pierce, his own appointee, for a Black mayor during a meeting. The massive defense build-up under Reagan, at the same time the Soviet bloc was a shadow of its former self, diverted much-needed federal dollars from housing and other domestic programs at a critical time in the post-civil rights era. The spigot was cut off at the very time that Blacks were poised to turn the corner on a number of social indicators. Major cities, firmly in the grips of Black leadership or headed that way, had no recourse under an administration that played to the worst fears of white suburbanites and rural voters.
Reagan also ushered in an era of Black conservatives, right-wing apologists whose complexion confounded critics, threw the civil rights establishment off-balance, shielded the president from being taken to task for his assault on racial minorities and the poor, and enchanted a media that was somewhat amused by what appeared to be a fissure in the Black community. He placed Clarence Pendleton on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission while attempting to force longtime commissioners off the panel, and attempting to end its historic role as an independent watchdog. Reagan then forced fed us Pendleton’s namesake, Clarence Thomas, and gave him free reign to destroy the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); setting us up for Thomas’ eventual appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The laissez faire politics of the Reagan era ushered in an era of greed in this nation, from which the fallout continues today. The concentration in wealth that began under Ronald Reagan set the stage for the gross disparities we presently see in the economic status between Americans. It gave way to corporate excess that showed little regard for the rules of conduct or the law, given free reign by an administration that viewed regulation and enforcement as an obstacle to wealth accumulation. The Reagan presidency made excess a guiding principle for modern day robber barons.
So now, upon his death, I refuse to engage in the flood of sentimental remembrances that, if not checked, will write another inaccurate chapter in the history of this nation. Before we allow the right to carve his face on Mount Rushmore, we should make every effort to destroy the Reagan myth.
Walter Fields is publisher of TheNorthstarNetwork.com.