By Michael Harriot
One of my earliest memories in life was the night Ronald Reagan was elected president because it was also the night I prayed harder than I ever have in life.
During the presidential campaign of 1980, I distinctly remember being terrified after I heard an adult say: “If Reagan is elected, he will send black people back in the cotton fields.” So, on the night of the election, when I heard my grandmother and mother in the next room say that he had won, I got down on my knees.
I didn’t know how to pick cotton. Would I have to give up my dream of playing point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers and my future side hustle as a tambourine player in Earth Wind & Fire to get a cotton-picking degree in picking cotton? Why would I even need to go to kindergarten if I was doomed to a life on the plantation? I had already started my tambourine lessons! I needed to talk to Jesus about this.
While I now realize that my 6-year-old self couldn’t properly understand sarcasm, the memory underscores the feelings of most black people who survived the era of trickle-down economics, the War on Drugs and the demonization of the Welfare Queen. So imagine my surprise when I learned that there are white people who didn’t know that Ronald Reagan is considered by many to be the most racist president in modern, pre-Trump history.
According to Mediaite and the Caucasian Pearl-Clutching Weekly, Rep. Ronald Reagan (D-NY) was interviewed at the South by Southwest Festival on Saturday and made comments that really rankled some Republicans. Although I’ve never personally experienced a “rankling,” I imagined it is not pleasant.
AOC was interviewed Saturday at the festival by The Intercept Senior Politics Editor Briahna Gray, and discussed Reagan’s political exploitation of race, without explicitly calling him a racist.
“One perfect example, I think a perfect example of how special interests and the powerful have pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working-class Americans in order to just screw over all working class Americans,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “is Reaganism in the eighties, when he started talking about Welfare Queens.”
She said that Reagan presented a “resentful vision of essentially black women who were doing nothing, that were sucks on our country,” and that Reagan gave people who were “already subconsciously trained to resent” black women “a different reason that’s not explicit racism, but still rooted in a racist caricature, it gives people a logical, a quote ‘logical’ reason to say ‘oh yeah, I know, toss out the whole social safety net.”
White people love Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan is a conservative icon even more beloved than white things like the Hallmark Channel, pumpkin patches or oversized American flags. Since 1988, Republicans have been searching for another populist GOP Messiah to return America to the glory days of unbridled capitalism and unabashed whiteness. So conservatives and right-leaning moderates were stunned to hear that not everyone has the same regard for the former champion of white fear mongering. But Ocasio-Cortez’s comments were common knowledge to others.
I was flabbergasted to learn that white America had no idea that people felt this way about Reagan. In the 1980 election, Reagan garnered 14 percent of the black vote, according to the Roper Center. But after four years of Reagan, only 9 percent of black voters cast a ballot for Reagan in the 1984 presidential race. Even more telling, in his second bid for office, 66 percent of whites voted for the Gipper. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, no president has won an election with a bigger gap between black and white voters.
And while many people wrongly assume that Ocasio-Cortez called Reagan “a racist,” what she really said was that his policies exploited racism, similar to our current White House Grand Dragon. Any examination of Reagan’s presidency reveals one thing to be true.
Ronald Reagan was the white man’s president.
Ronald Reagan is one of the first candidates who employed racial dog whistles to practice “identity politics.”
During his first try at the Republican nomination in 1976, he tried to vanquish then-President Gerald Ford by voicing his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. Coretta Scott King said she was “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.”
In 1980, Reagan kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at the Neshoba County Fair, where local Klansmen were still being protected after the white supremacist, Mississippi Burning murders of civil rights workers in 1964.Political candidates had avoided the area for years before Reagan kicked off his campaign to a raucous crowd of 10,000 white people listening to him champion “states rights.”
During Reagan’s presidency, he vetoed an anti-Apartheid bill and initially opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday. His stances against affirmative action grew stronger, leading him to direct his justice department to issue directives against hiring practices in 56 states, counties and cities.
In fact, Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella of the Washington Post credits Reagan with inventing the Republican narrative that affirmative action equals reverse racism, writing:
More than any other modern U.S. president, it was Ronald Reagan who cultivated the concept of so-called reverse discrimination, which emerged in the 1970s as a backlash against affirmative action in public schooling as court-ordered busing grew throughout the country. During these years, a growing number of white Americans came to believe civil rights programs and policies had outstretched their original intent and had turned whites into the victims of racial discrimination.
His other strategies for dismantling civil rights protections were much more nefarious. He loaded federal courts with judges who were hostile to civil rights laws. Before he was nominated to the Supreme Court, staunch conservative Clarence Thomas was in charge of the Justice Department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And while many assume it was her position on Roe v. Wade that earned Sandra Day O’Connor a nomination from Reagan to the Supreme Court, many forget how she played the “lead role in decisions that undid certain affirmative action policies and the cold treatment she generally gave plaintiffs of color who alleged discrimination.”
Reagan’s trickle-down economics disproportionately affected people of color, causing the biggest disparity in black and white unemployment since the repeal of segregation. After 1963, the number of children who experienced segregation in American schools decreased dramatically until the Reagan administration’s opposition to busing brought the downward trend to a standstill. In 1976, Reagan created the idea of the “welfare queen”—stoking the idea that “strapping young bucks” were somehow using government assistance to buy T-Bone steaks and Cadillacs. To this very day, the GOP perpetuates this racist, dog-whistle trope to demonize immigrants and minorities as bloodsucking parasites living off government handouts even though these programs benefit poor whites the most.
But nowhere was Reagan’s anti-black policies more evident than in his continuation of the War on Drugs. He began his “zero tolerance” drug initiative by demonizing the epidemic of crack cocaine as an inner-city problem while the data showed that whites used it more. When his administration implemented the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, he established mandatory minimums for crack cocaine that were much harsher than the penalties for powder cocaine.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, when Ronald Reagan took office, there were 50,000 people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. By 1997, 400,000 people were imprisoned for nonviolent narcotics crimes, largely because of Reagan-era mandatory minimums. But it wasn’t whites who were being sent to jail. Despite the fact that whites and blacks used illegal drugs at about the same rate during the Reagan era, the percentage of black people arrested for illicit drugs increased dramatically while the white arrest rate stayed relatively flat.
The furor over Ocasio-Cortez’s comments reveals the way white America mistakenly defines racism. To them, racism exists in heads and hearts alone, not in deeds. It is the notion that fuels bigots to adamantly declare that they can’t be racist because they know what’s in their hearts. It causes congressman to defend Donald Trump’s racism by parading one of his lone black employees out while ignoring his actions.
It might be true that Ronald Reagan didn’t have a speck of animus toward black people. Maybe some of his best friends were black. Even though it is impossible to know how Reagan felt about black people in his heart, it is also irrelevant.
Ronald Reagan’s heart didn’t explode the black prison population. His heart didn’t cause an explosion in wealth inequality, dismantle civil rights, demonize black people, infuse racism into politics, widen the black unemployment gap or perpetuate economic, social and political disparities at every turn.
His policies did that.
So, even though Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t call GOP Jesus a racist, maybe she should have. Because, if Ronald Reagan’s presidency wasn’t racist, then racism does not exist. At this very moment, black communities across America are still recovering from the Reagan era.
But at least I still have these cotton-picking tambourine skills.
This article originally appeared in The San Antonio Observer.