Tomorrow, I’ll be turning in Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, so I want to fulfill my long-standing vow to do a write-up about it.
Let me start with four personal anecdotes. When I was at DePauw University, I took an Intro to Poli Sci class, which was taught by a very liberal professor. He wasn’t a part of the New Left, mind you, for he said in the 1970’s that anti-war protesters belonged in prison. Plus, he was a major critic of postmodernism. Essentially, he was your run-of-the-mill, New Deal Democrat, who also supported civil rights for African-Americans.
He basically told us that the Republican Party was racist. He said that most Republicans voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (including Bob Dole, who was running for President at the time), while most Democrats voted for it. He also stated that the Democrats of the South became Republicans because of the GOP’s support for “states’ rights,” which was code for allowing segregation in the South. He called this the “Southern strategy,” in which the GOP used “code-words” to win the racist Southern states.
When I informed him that Bob Dole actually voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told me that this little detail didn’t matter, since most Republicans voted against it. In retrospect, I wish I had fought him a little harder on that point. After all, if a major figure of the GOP such as its candidate for President voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then why should we be calling the party “racist”? Moreover, I checked the Congressional Record and found that a lot of Democrats voted against it. But he’d probably respond that those were Southern Democrats, who later became Republicans. I just couldn’t win!
Now let’s fast forward to my Jewish Theological Seminary years. I was in a class with a Columbia student, and I somehow let it slip that I was a Republican. He then launched into a major tirade. “Why are you against black people? Why are you against gay people?,” he asked. I didn’t fight him, since I was trying to be a nice person. But, in retrospect, I wish I fought back (rhetorically, of course).
In New York, I frequently went out to eat with people from my Asperger’s group. One of them was a provocative, die-hard Democrat, and he said on a few occasions, “You know, Republicans say they’re not racist, but they use code-words for racist ideas. What do you think their talk about ‘welfare queens’ and crime is all about?” I didn’t argue with him, but I don’t see how such rhetoric is inherently racist. There were white people who plundered the welfare system as well, plus everyone should be concerned about crime, regardless of what their race is. Also, who are the ones injecting race into that kind of conversation? Not the Republicans, let me tell you, but the Democrats, who like to see racism where it doesn’t exist.
Now let’s rewind to my Harvard years. I was taking a class on early American history, and we were having a discussion on whether Thomas Jefferson was a racist. A conservative student said that we shouldn’t judge Jefferson according to modern standards, whereas a liberal one was pointing out that there were abolitionists in Jefferson’s time, and Tom was not among them. The liberal student’s good point was pretty much ignored, as people focused instead on her overall argument: that the founding fathers were racist bigots. I sided with the conservative student, as did most of the class (surprisingly, since this was liberal Harvard). But, as the years went by, I often thought about that whole incident: maybe I was wrong. Jefferson could have been an abolitionist, but he wasn’t one. So why is criticizing Jefferson on race an act of judging him by modern standards? His own time offered him an anti-slavery position, and he rejected it.
Now onto Bartlett’s book! His argument is basically that the Democratic Party has a racist past. Thomas Jefferson was a racist, who beat his slaves and freed only a few of them at his death. And he wasn’t just acting according to the racist mindset of his time either, for a lot of slave-holders freed all of their slaves when they died. Plus, George Washington had a high view of African-Americans because he had fought beside them in the American Revolution. According to Bartlett, Jefferson was behind his own time on the race issue.
Democrat Andrew Johnson was a racist who tried to hinder the “radical Republicans” from bringing racial equality to the South. For some reason, the liberal history books I used in school always sided with Johnson. Go figure! And one of Johnson’s biggest defenders was Professor Woodrow Wilson, who, as President, instituted segregation throughout the federal government.
Franklin Roosevelt frequently used the “N-word,” barred blacks from Warm Springs (notwithstanding what the movie Warm Springs depicts), appointed a KKK member to the Supreme Court, and refused to support an anti-lynching law. His New Deal hurt blacks in a number of ways. The minimum wage deprived blacks of jobs, since they could no longer compete with whites by offering to work for lower wages. Regardless of what’s on Roots: The Next Generation, the New Deal farm policy basically screwed black farmers, for “the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) only paid those who owned the land, thus excluding sharecroppers and tenant farmers” (sorry, Brock Peters!) (114). The Tennessee Valley Authority refused to hire blacks even as it forced black farmers off of their land. And the Federal Housing Administration created ghettos because it favored “single family homes in racially homogeneous neighborhoods,” while depriving inner-city areas of housing loans (115).
As a Senator in the 1950’s, John F. Kennedy “denied that Congress had any role to play in implementing the Brown decision, voted against bringing the 1957 civil rights bill to a vote in the Senate, and supported amendments that weakened its effectiveness” (160-161). And guess who was a big figure in weakening the 1957 civil rights bill? Lyndon Johnson! Kennedy didn’t really do anything about civil rights until 1963, when it was politically convenient.
While Bartlett does not view the Republican Party as saintly, he thinks it’s gotten a worse rap than it deserves. Republican Theodore Roosevelt appointed a lot of African-Americans to government posts. Support for an anti-lynching law was a feature of the Republican platform for decades. In 1964, in the House of Representatives, almost as many Republicans as Democrats voted for the Civil Rights bill (138 Republicans, and 152 Democrats). And Richard Nixon actually added teeth to the Brown decision, for he “cut off federal aid to five Southern school districts that refused to integrate” (174).
Bartlett also dismisses the “Southern strategy” as a myth. According to him, the South became Republican because of its urbanization and increasing wealth, not on account of the GOP being racist. I remember encountering the same argument in Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Majority.
But Bartlett’s book is not exactly “Republicans good, Democrats bad,” for he lavishes praise on Harry Truman, who supported civil rights when it was a political liability for him to do so. And, while I like the book because it can silence liberal Democratic self-righteousness on the race issue, Bartlett has a broader agenda than arguing that his party’s better. He encourages the GOP to take the moral high ground on race, specifically by supporting reparations for African-Americans. As far as Bartlett is concerned, Republicans need to start reaching out to a wider variety of people, who are becoming more and more receptive to Republican ideas.
I hope you can see by my summary that I really enjoyed this book! I get a perverse sense of pleasure whenever the sacred name of Franklin Roosevelt is dragged through the mud (which probably isn’t very Christian of me!). But I want to make two points about the book, one of them thoughtful, and the other critical.
First of all, in reading this book, I had to undergo a dramatic paradigm shift. In this day-and-age, it’s not politically-correct to be a racist. Politicians who make a comment that can be remotely construed as bigoted have to apologize lest they jeopardize their political careers. But the time that Bartlett describes was quite different: in those days, people had to apologize for not being racist. The Democrats wanted to hold on to their Southern support, after all! So when the racist politician Tom Watson accused Woodrow Wilson of sending a letter of condolence to Booker T. Washington, “Wilson’s campaign vehemently denied that he had done such a thing” (98). Those were different times, it appears!
Second, while Bartlett does well to offer a nuanced picture of the political parties and race, elements of his book indicate that the reality was even more complex than he presents it. For example, he doesn’t really address the anti-slavery things that Jefferson did, such as Jefferson’s criticism of slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Bartlett just says that the big picture indicates Jefferson was pro-slavery.
Bartlett also pooh-poohs the defense of FDR that says Roosevelt only backed off from an anti-lynching law because he wanted Southern support for the New Deal. He says, “The idea that Southern Democrats would block legislation widely viewed as essential for economic recovery in the middle of the Great Depression just to protest Roosevelt’s support for an antilynching bill is ridiculous” (128). Yet, he says earlier that Southern Democrats “were not always inclined to support the New Deal” (57). Which is it? The reality was probably complex, since there were many Southern racists who were otherwise progressive on politics and economics (as Bartlett documents). But there was a Southern conservative element as well.
Bartlett calls the Southern strategy a myth, which implies that Nixon didn’t try to win the South through racist code-words. Yet, he quotes Nixon as saying in January 1970, “I don’t give a damn about the Southern strategy–I care a great deal about decent education” (175). Nixon is saying that he’ll support integration regardless of the Southern strategy. Why would he say that, if the Southern strategy was a sheer myth and Nixon wasn’t applying it (on some level)?
Whatever its flaws, Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race knocks down a lot of liberal myths, for which I’m exceedingly grateful. I’ll refer to it the next time a liberal lectures me about Republicans being racists!