Reagan and African-Americans

Today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday! To honor both that and Black History Month, this post will interact with a few quotes about Reagan and race in Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000).

The quotes are in italics:

I do not believe that Reagan was racially prejudiced in the normal meaning of the term. He had been taught by his parents that racial intolerance was abhorrent, and the many people I interviewed who knew him as a young man were unanimous in believing that he absorbed these lessons. In his autobiography Reagan tells how he volunteered to take Eureka College’s two black football players into his home in Dixon after they were refused admission at a hotel on one of the team’s trips to an Illinois college. The players were welcomed by Reagan’s parents, as Reagan had known they would be. One of these players was William Franklin Burghardt, who had played center on the line next to Reagan. The two became friends and corresponded regularly until Burghardt’s death in 1981. Burghardt vividly remembered the incident where he and his black teammate had been refused admission to the hotel and supported Reagan’s account of what had happened. ‘I just don’t think he [Reagan] was conscious of race at all,’ Burghardt said in 1981. ‘If you listened to the Carter debate during the campaign, Reagan said that when he was growing up they didn’t know they had a race problem. It was the dumbest thing a grown person could say, but he’d never seen it. I believe that [the hotel incident] was his first experience of that sort.

Racial segregation was at the time routine in many communities in the Middle West. Reagan was opposed to it. He had helped recruit Burghardt to play at Eureka from Greenfield, Illinois, where his grandfather and uncle worked as barbers. Nearly a half century later, when he was governor, Reagan named a black to the state board that licenses and regulated the barber industry in California. When Deaver asked him why he was bothering to do this, since he had so little political support among blacks, Reagan explained that he had once been told by a black that he had been turned away by a white barber who said he didn’t know how to cut a black man’s hair. “If I put a black man on a barber’s board this isn’t going to happen,” Reagan said. “It’s the right thing to do.” (Cannon 457-458)

Here are my reactions:

1. These two quotes present the positive side of Reagan’s stance on race (i.e., he personally opposed segregation). On pages 454-463, Cannon argues that Reagan’s positions were much more complicated, since he tended to oppose the use of federal power to enforce civil rights legislation. Cannon cites facts to support his argument, such as Reagan’s 1988 veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Reagan, however, presents a different picture in his autobiography, Ronald Reagan: An American Life (New York: Pocket, 1990). He states: “Funding for enforcement of civil rights laws went up eighteen percent over my eight years in office. We took the lead in developing new civil rights legislation that strengthened the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And proportionately, blacks benefited more than any other racial group from our economic policies” (Reagan 401). Reagan refers to the increase in African-American income and employment that occurred during his Administration.

Who’s right? On the one hand, Reagan had a reputation for exaggeration and remembering events in a distorted manner, as critics claimed that Reagan tended to see what he wanted to see. On the other hand, the Left’s mythology is not always accurate, either. Many liberal Democrats referred to Republican “cuts” in Medicare spending during the 1990’s, when actually the Republicans were proposing a slow-down of an increase. They say poverty increased when George W. Bush was Governor of Texas, when it went down. They called Bush judicial nominee Charles Pickering a racist, even though he put his life at stake in the racist South by sending his kids to an integrated school. Conservatives are usually not as bad as liberals like to portray them.

2. “Whoopee! So he appointed an African-American to the barber board when he was governor,” cynics will probably say. But his autobiography says that he did more than that as governor of California. Reagan narrates that he secretly met with African-Americans shortly after he became governor, and he found concern that blacks couldn’t get state jobs, outside of janitorial positions. Reagan discovered that “state civil service tests were slanted against them,” and he tried to correct that problem to make sure that “everyone got an even break” (Reagan 164-165).

3. Some may dismiss the story of Reagan and the barber board, but I like it for three reasons. First, it shows how Reagan responded to individuals. In the American Experience documentary on Reagan, I think it was Ron Reagan who said that Reagan was socially-conscious when he was brought face-to-face with an individual’s plight. For example, although Reagan signed legislation to reduce the welfare state, he sent a check to a mother who had problems making ends meet. When she framed her check instead, Reagan sent her another one so she’d have enough money to eat.

Second, it shows Reagan was eager to hear from people who did not politically support him. He was somewhat like Obama, who has met with conservatives and Republicans since the onset of his Administration. Reagan not only sought advice from African-Americans, but he also met with Thurgood Marshall when the justice accused him of being a racist. “That night, I think I made a friend,” Reagan writes (Reagan 402). In a time when we seek bipartisanship in an intensely divided political climate, Reagan serves as a historical role-model of someone who reached out to the other side, even as he held fast to his own conservative convictions.

The third reason is that I had an experience a while back with the barber issue. When I was at DePauw, I often got annoyed because black students would set up a barber shop in my dorm’s restroom. I didn’t like having to muddle through a crowd when I used the toilet, washed my hands, and took a shower! But my mom told me that they do this because no one else will cut their hair, which was probably true in the predominantly white community of Greencastle, Indiana. I felt bad about the exclusion of African-Americans in this situation, especially when I can walk in anywhere to get a haircut. Heck, I’ve gone into black hair salons, and they’re willing to cut my hair! Although I still got a little annoyed when the black students set up their barber shop in the dorm restroom, I at least understood where they were coming from.

4. The statement that Reagan made in his debate with Carter was this: “I am eternally optimistic, and I happen to believe that we’ve made great progress from the days when I was young and when this country didn’t even know it had a racial problem. I know those things can grow out of despair in an inner city, when there’s hopelessness at home, lack of work, and so forth.” I can understand why people would have problems with this statement, since one can read it to say that America was unaware of racial discrimination when Reagan was younger. But he may be saying that, during his childhood, many assumed that everyone was satisfied with the status quo, when actually that was not the case. Whatever one’s interpretation of his statement, Reagan does acknowledge that the country has had a lot of racial problems over the course of its history, even when he was a child.

Reagan was not perfect, but he was a good man, and his character extended to how he addressed race issues.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Black History Month, Current Events, History, Holidays, Race, Ronald Reagan. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Reagan and African-Americans

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am with you on this James was and still a fan of Ronald Reagan. Gram


  2. Byker Bob says:

    Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California during my freshman year at Ambassador College in Pasadena, Ca. I never thought of him as being racist.

    That period in our national history was very turbulent. There were riots from time to time. Some of these were labeled as “race riots”, but there were also the teenybopper riots on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, and near and actual riots on the college campuses fomented by the anti-war movement.

    The phrase “silent majority” had not yet been coined, and it appeared for probably about ten years (1969-1979) as if the counter culture had become the predominant culture. When Reagan was elected president, GQ Magazine began featuring male models with short hair. We knew that changes were on the way.

    I believe that most of us white people have received an education with the progression of time. During the ’60s, certain cultural factors began to change. Up until about 1969, you simply did not see Black people in printed advertisements, on billboards, in magazines other than perhaps Ebony, and there was also underrepresentation on television and in the movies. The Bandaid company had a product called “flesh colored” Bandaids, and they were the color of white people’s skin. Frito Lay actually had a character called “the Frito Bandito” in their ads, who spoke with a heavy Mexican accent. I don’t believe that these necessarily were due to deliberate racism, but they were certainly indicative of ignorance, and offensive. Conservative people, by nature and definition are very slow to change. That’s why liberals often characterize themselves as being progressive.

    Name calling, in politics, serves a very useful purpose. It baits and dramatizes. Call a politician a racist, and he’s going to attempt to prove that he is not. Now, he may in fact not be racist.
    But, he may reexamine some of his policies if he feels that they would be perceived as racist. It is unfair, but in the chess game known as politics, it is often effective.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane, James. I really didn’t appreciate Ronald Reagan while he was president. I was into too much of the wild stuff then, and kind of resented conservatism. It’s only in retrospect that I realize that he accomplished quite a bit of good.



  3. Anonymous says:

    Ronald Reagan was one of those rare persons who, even among those who do not agree with their politics, are admired for their humanity and grace. I think John F. Kennedy was another. It certainly doesn’t happen all that often. I enjoyed this post, also. Mom


  4. James Pate says:

    Glad you all enjoyed the post!


  5. James Pate says:

    I have a question, Byker Bob. Was Reagan generally liked at Ambassador College when you were there? Or was he disliked? Or did many of the students not follow politics?

    I wonder this because, culturally-speaking, the WCG was rather conservative. But it also could be liberal, in its environmentalism, opposition to war, etc.


  6. Byker Bob says:

    James, the only thing I recall one way or the other on Ronald Reagan was that upon his election, HWA felt that we’d reached a new low by electing a movie star as governor. After he was in office, we were exhorted to respect that office.

    AC was a rather unusual type of “think tank” in that, while we as Christians were taught that we were ambassadors for Christ and were not to take part in the world’s politics, generally the top ministers were very conservative “closet Republicans” in their political views. While we were taught that America had won its last war, the vast majority of the people in the headquarters area were in favor of our winning the Viet Nam War. It would have been very confusing to anyone outside of that general mindset.

    I left WCG in 1975, when it became obvious that Jesus had a schedule in mind totally different from the one that HWA had established for Him. So, I really don’t know how Ronald Reagan’s presidency was regarded by HWA. The only church people I occasionally spoke with during that time were some of my family members who were still with WCG. It seemed apparent that they were unabashed fans of Ronald Reagan, and I’d have to assume that this mirrored HWA’s own opinions.



  7. Alfonzo Rodriquez Mendosa Cardenas Suarez says:

    You have been lied to. Reagan didn’t end the Cold War. The USSR had been falling over economically for decades, the defense and intelligence services knew it, and so did Reagan and his ilk. So they lied up “Plan B” (go look it up, but not on Conservapedia) which purported to show a gap between what they had and what we had. Lies. All Reagan did was speed up the inevitable and destroy the US economy in the process, from world leading creditor nation to leading debtor on his watch.

    Reagan was a senile figurehead used by extreme right-wing military, political, and economic powers to do their bidding. Photogenic, ignorant, and simple to dupe, he was easy to manipulate and when he was caught, as in Iran/Contra, his cronies were covered because Reagan literally did not know what was going on, and hadn’t for some time. “I don’t remember – period.” – Ronald Reagan.

    Don’t believe me? Read on.

    Howard Baker publicly commented on Reagan’s poor memory as he took over as Reagan’s Chief of Staff in February 1987. That was one of the few mistakes of frankness in an orchestrated effort to present Reagan as competent. (Time Magazine, March 16, 1987 “Baker Breaks the Fever” reads in part, “Baker deftly handled sticky questions about remarks he made to a Miami Herald editor on a Miami-to-Washington flight two weeks ago. Baker, whose comments were printed in last Sunday’s Herald, told the editor that the President’s memory had a short “half-life.”)

    Edmund Muskie (Tower Commission member) was stunned at how out of it Reagan during the Tower commission interview (LA Times, March 2, 1987 “Muskie Amazed at President’s Memory Lapses” reads in part “Former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Me.) said Sunday that the Tower Commission was astonished by President Reagan’s loss of memory concerning important details of the Iran-Contra affair and that he questions whether the President “can come to grips with the responsibilities of his office.”)

    The Tower Commission Report found in Reagan’s own diary an entry for January 17, 1986: “1/17/86 only thing waiting was N.S.C. wanting decisions on our effort to get our 5 hostages out of Lebanon — involves selling TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran — I gave a go ahead.” On February 20, 1987, President Reagan in a letter to the Tower Commission stated: “I let myself be influenced by others’ recollections, not my own.” President Reagan said he had no personal notes or records to refresh his memory and he “cannot recall anything whatsoever” about whether he approved the shipment or replenishment in August 1985. “My answer therefore and the simple truth is, `I don’t remember — period.’ Probably the truth, for once: the man’s memory was deficient. The Commission report concluded Reagan was careless, remote, forgetful, indifferent, and “clearly didn’t understand” what was going on.

    A diary kept by White House Counsel Peter Wallison indicates President Reagan’s state of confusion as his staff tried to prepare him for the Tower Commission interview. In his book Consequences (Little, Brown & Co., 1991, pp. 283-284.), John Tower, the Chairman of the Tower Board, described the Board’s shock and suspicion over President Reagan’s changed testimony. Tower said when he asked the President clarifying questions, the President at one point “picked up a sheet of paper and . . . said to the board, ‘This is what I am supposed to say,’ and proceeded to read us an answer prepared by Peter Wallison, the White House counsel.” Another view of the same event is from Cannon’s 1991 Reagan history “Ronald Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime”: On February 2, 1987 President Reagan testified for a second time to the Tower Commission. His testimony was incoherent and confused. Commission investigators note that while the Meese investigation claimed Reagan did not know of the August 1985 shipment of missiles to Iran, Reagan himself claimed in his previous testimony he did know of the shipments. When asked to clarify the inconsistency, Reagan shocks onlookers by picking up a briefing memo he had been given and reading aloud, “If the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised.” White House counsel Peter Wallison is stunned. “I was horrified, just horrified,” he later recalls. “I didn’t expect him to go and get the paper. The purpose of it was just to recall to his mind before he goes into the meeting” what he, Wallison, and Chief of Staff Donald Regan had agreed was the proper chain of events—that Reagan had not known of the shipments beforehand, and had been surprised to learn of them.

    Alzheimer’s doesn’t start overnight, it builds for decades. Reagan was brain dead while in office.

    And now you know the truth.


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