This past Thursday, February 6th, would have been President Ronald Reagan's 103rd birthday. Over the course of the day, I heard more than a few members of the media do their annual birthday bow to our 40th president. This hagiography is not limited to conservative media. Even progressive members of the media engage in the celebration of Reagan's legacy. In recent years, it has become ritual for Republican candidates for national office and conservative advocates to quote Ronald Reagan repeatedly and opine on what Reagan would have done in such and such a situation. But left of center commentators who wish to point out how conservative the Republican Party has become, like to cite Reagan as well, pointing out ways in which Reagan's policies would be too liberal for today's GOP. Regardless of where they may have stood at the time, many public figures have managed to find ways to view President Reagan's career in a Mt. Rushmore-like light. Like the overwhelming number of black folks who were politically aware during Reagan's political career, I just don't share in this sentiment. I simply cannot.
I cannot forget that so much of Reagan's career was spent sending messages and supporting policies intended to hurt, or at the very least inhibit the progress of people who look like me. President Reagan was indeed personally charming. But don't be fooled. When you get past his Hollywood looks, affable manner and witty quips, his policies were barely different than those espoused by his contemporary, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who didn't bother with such niceties. Unlike Helms, when national politics moved against his previously held positions, Reagan at least demonstrated the flexibility to change his tune and suddenly support measures that he had previously opposed. But as the policies were being debated, most black folks are clear -- neither man meant us well.
People are hesitant to be critical of the deceased or former presidents. I appreciate the grace in that sentiment, so let President Reagan speak for himself.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964? Ronald Reagan opposed it. "I would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964>"
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965? Ronald Reagan opposed it. He complained that this measure was "humiliating to the South."
- California Fair Housing Act of 1963? Ronald Reagan opposed it. "If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so."
- Affirmative Action? Ronald Reagan opposed it. "I think there are some things ... that may even be distorted in the practice, such as some affirmative action programs becoming quota systems."
- Sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa? Ronald Reagan opposed them. "Can we abandon a country that has stood beside us in every war we've ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have and so forth?"
- School Desegregation? Ronald Reagan opposed busing, calling it a "ridiculous waste of time and public money, which could seriously undermine all efforts to improve the quality of public schools." He also attempted to provide tax exemptions to schools that engaged in racial discrimination. When the IRS refused to provide tax exemptions to such institutions, President Reagan said "there was no basis in the law for what they were doing."
And beyond the policy measures, President Reagan used code words to give a wink and a nod to those who sought to keep blacks "in their place." Reagan launched his general election presidential campaign in 1980 with a speech in Neshoba County, MS. Until Reagan's campaign stop, that place was only known for the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner in 1964. There President Reagan used his speech to proclaim his support for "state's rights." The Ku Klux Klan endorsed his campaign shortly afterwards. At another appearance, he went to Stone Mountain, Ga. and called Jefferson Davis "one of his heroes." Reagan sought to paint a racial portrait to stress his opposition to welfare complaining of "strapping young bucks using public benefits to buy t-bone steaks." Listeners, be they black or white, got the message that he intended here.
Many conservatives hail President Reagan as the one who began the reduction of the size and role of government and credit him with "winning" the Cold War. Observers from the Left and the Right can argue the merits there for a long time. Still there is no doubt that President Reagan's career still casts a shadow over the American political landscape. But his attitude and actions towards black Americans, leaves most of us unable to find him to be a heroic or even sympathetic figure. When the 40th president's birthday comes around, don't expect most of us to break out the party hats and candles.