American Renaissance

The Great Racial Surprise of the Reagan Presidency

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Pacific News Service, Jun. 07

The great myth is that former President Ronald Reagan did more damage to civil rights and social programs than any other modern day president. In fact, Reagan’s White House years were marked by ambivalence, hesitancy and conciliation toward civil rights, not the all-out assault that blacks feared and Reagan boosters expected.

Reagan’s occasional digs at civil rights leaders, his touting of states’ rights and his conservative social agenda fueled hopes among many conservatives that Reagan would scrap welfare, dismantle Great Society social programs and torpedo affirmative action. At his first press conference the week after his inauguration, Reagan told reporters, “I’m old enough to remember when quotas existed in the United States for purposes of discrimination, and I don’t want to see that again.”

Reagan’s Justice Department promptly filed dozens of lawsuits to overturn affirmative action plans negotiated with police and fire departments. Some of the court challenges succeeded, some didn’t. But the Reagan administration did not mount a vigorous, sustained legal challenge to affirmative action programs or whittle away regulations mandating diversity in government hiring, promotions and contracting programs that conservatives demanded. President Clinton, a centrist Democrat, did. He pared away many government affirmative action programs, and the successful court overhaul of anti-affirmative action admission programs came on his presidential watch.

Reagan’s ambivalence on civil rights especially enraged conservatives in the Bob Jones University case in 1982. At first he backed the decision by the Justice Department to overturn an IRS decision denying a tax exemption to Bob Jones, which banned interracial student dating. When civil rights leaders denounced the decision, Reagan quickly dropped the issue. Ultimately the Supreme Court upheld the IRS.

At the end of Reagan’s first term in 1984, his Justice Department brought fewer civil rights suits in housing, education and voter discrimination cases than during President Jimmy Carter’s first term. Yet, at a press conference, a defensive Reagan declared that “he felt no higher duty than to defend the civil rights of all Americans.” Though civil rights leaders mocked his claim, Reagan’s Justice Department was far more aggressive in prosecuting — and getting — convictions in high-profile police abuse and racially motivated murder cases than the Carter administration. Reagan continued to be sensitive to the issue of racially motivated violence, and occasionally spoke out on it.

In his last message to Congress before departing the White House in 1988, Reagan claimed that his Justice Department had prosecuted more criminal civil rights cases than any other administration in American history. Though civil rights leaders continued to assail Reagan’s record on civil rights enforcement, Reagan’s Justice Department had taken a genuine activist role in criminal civil rights enforcement. That exemplary record was due in part to the diligence of federal prosecutors, and, despite popular belief, to the weak history of criminal civil rights enforcement during the administrations of moderate and liberal Democrats Kennedy, Johnson and Carter.

Civil rights leaders worried that Reagan would dump the 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacted during Johnson’s administration. Reagan gave every appearance that he would do just that. During the 1980 presidential campaign, he publicly branded the voting rights act “humiliating to the South.” This delighted white Southerners. But once in office, Reagan promptly did a volte-face. In 1982, he approved a 25-year extension of the Act. This insured that black voting rolls would continue to rise, the numbers of black elected officials would continue to surge and that the Democratic Party would remain competitive in local races in the South.

Then there was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The instant that King was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, civil rights and black congressional Democrats demanded the Congress make King’s birthday a federal holiday. For a decade and a half the bill languished in Congress, and the attacks on King’s character and radical politics grew more intense. Eventually, mass black pressure and the relentless lobbying efforts of liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans paid off. Congress passed the King holiday bill in October 1983. Despite massive pressure from North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, King critics and Reagan’s deep personal misgivings about the King bill and King, he signed the bill a month later. This made him the first president to sign a bill commemorating an African American with a national holiday.

At a King observance the year after the holiday officially was celebrated in 1986, Reagan denounced racial bigotry and discrimination. Reagan, in effect, wrapped himself in King’s mantle. Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush junior have followed that precedent, and on every King holiday evoke his name and speak out against racial discrimination.

Civil rights leaders still tag the Reagan presidency as the single worst period for racial progress in recent U.S. history. But despite black fears, and to the bitter disappointment of many conservatives, Reagan did not end affirmative action, dismantle welfare or totally gut social programs. His administration’s policy toward civil rights was, like that of many past administrations, considerably more mixed.

PNS contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson ( is a political analyst and author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press).