The Magazine

The Party of Civil Rights

It wasn't the Democrats.

Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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A close examination shows that, yes, Nixon and Reagan adjusted their rhetoric and behavior to try to attract southern white voters, just as Franklin Roosevelt did when he refused to support anti-lynching bills for fear of antagonizing southern congressmen. Just as John Kennedy did when he wooed southern leaders (including by voting for the 1957 jury trial provision) in the lead-up to the 1960 Democratic nomination battle. And just as Hubert Humphrey did when he rubbed elbows with Georgia's segregationist governor Lester Maddox as the 1968 election approached. The question should not be about electioneering or rhetoric but about whether Nixon and Reagan's policies made conservatism any more racist in practice than FDR's liberalism.

With Nixon, the issue of school desegregation is front and center. He broke with LBJ's strategy on this issue. Rather than threatening recalcitrant southern schools with the loss of federal funding, Nixon formed a cabinet committee, led by George Shultz, that convened black and white leaders from each noncomplying state. Together, they overcame 15 years of foot-dragging and negotiated the successful desegregation of local school systems within a couple of years. Nixon insisted that administration spokesmen not crow publicly about what was being accomplished, to avoid inflaming southern opposition. Nixon--despite the stereotype that he only paid lip service to civil rights--did virtually the reverse: accommodating southern sensibilities rhetorically while delivering desegregation substantively. He also laid the basis for affirmative action as we know it by pressing race-preference guidelines on government contractors. He pioneered sizable minority set-asides in federal procurement and contracting in the hopes of boosting black advancement in business. All in all, Nixon's was a pretty progressive record by the civil rights standards of the time.

But the terms of debate had changed by the late 1960s. Liberal civil rights activists became committed to the proposition that desegregation was not enough and that not just the moral responsibility but also the capacity to erase disparities between black and white Americans lay entirely with the broader society. They advocated large-scale government intervention to achieve "racial balance" throughout society. In K-12 education, because children were assigned to public schools by neighborhood, and because residential neighborhoods were largely sorted by race, this necessitated busing students across and even between school districts. Greater racial balance in neighborhoods could be achieved by placing housing projects in existing, majority-white communities. Poverty could be eased by greatly expanded welfare programs.

By these standards, conservatives fell short. They were skeptical that racial disparities could be solved by group-based policies and government programs. If anything, government policies risked setting up perverse incentives (financially encouraging the formation of single-parent families, for example) and lowering valuable social standards (dropping all screening for entrants to public housing).

But such interpretations were more than out of favor. The new civil rights activists enforced an orthodoxy of opinion on the subject of how to solve social disparities between blacks and whites. Daniel Patrick Moynihan discovered just how aggressively policed this orthodoxy was when, deeply concerned about black poverty, he authored a 1965 Department of Labor report--"The Negro Family: The Case for National Action"--that voiced concern about high rates of single-parent black families, which tended to have lower incomes. For his trouble, Moynihan was bitterly condemned as a bigot and his report as "blaming the victim." The latter became a common charge against commentators who tried to express genuine concern over the consequences of growing crime, delinquency, and disparities in educational performance, as well as illegitimacy.

This orthodoxy was shared by academic public-opinion research. Many race scholars began to treat conservative attitudes as presumptively racist, including any skepticism about affirmative action or expression of the belief that opportunities for social mobility are alive and well. One study coded as racist any agreement with the statement that "The streets are not safe these days without a policeman around." Others detected racism in white voters' hesitation to vote for black candidates like Tom Bradley and Jesse Jackson. This line of research accumulated into a general indictment of conservatism.