In my reading today of Nixon’s Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy, Dean Kotlowski continues to talk about the complexity of Richard Nixon’s attitude towards racial issues. Nixon did not have African-American friends when he was growing up in Whittier, California, yet he was raised a Quaker, “a tolerant religious sect that had opposed slavery” (page 10). When Nixon moved from Whitter to go to Duke Law School in North Carolina, he was shocked and disturbed when he saw racial segregation, according to a fellow student.
You would think that one could conclude from this that Nixon felt rather strongly about racial issues, but Kotlowski does not appear to believe that such a conclusion would be quite right, and Kotlowski tries to search for some way to conceptualize Nixon’s stance towards civil rights. He says that Nixon was more active in foreign policy, while he entrusted “the details of domestic policy to subordinates since he did not consider the latter as critically important as the former” (page 12). Kotlowski defines a Nixonian as one who “viewed civil rights in terms of ‘political practicality'” (page 13), which contrasts with a firm ideological commitment to the issue. Yet, Kotlowski also says that Nixon viewed domestic policy as relevant to foreign policy, as early as his days as Vice-President, when he “feared that American racism might push the nations of Africa and Asia into the Soviet camp” (page 10). Kotlowski also presents Nixon as one who was interested in civil rights.
I think that what Kotlowski states on page 13 may be one way to harmonize some of the tensions: “Nixon directed his team to settle civil rights matters, when possible, through court enforcement or administrative action rather than legislation. This chain of command allowed Nixon to focus on foreign policy…” Nixon focused his energies on foreign policy, but he also sought to ensure that his subordinates settled civil rights matters. His concentration was not so much on getting new civil rights legislation passed, but rather on enforcing the law and guaranteeing equality of opportunity.
I liked some details Kotlowski that mentions on page 18. Kowlowski states that, in 1966, Nixon believed that “states’ rights was not an ‘instrument of reaction’ but a way to reform health care and social welfare programs, an idea he later revived under the ‘New Federalism.’” Kotlowski also tells about Nixon’s successful attempt to get support from segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond in his 1968 Presidential run, in order to blunt George Wallace’s appeal. According to Kotlowski, Nixon tried to avoid the issue of civil rights in his discussion with Thurmond and to emphasize common ground, such as a commitment to a strong national defense. Regarding race, Nixon told Thurmond that he opposed bussing and supported “freedom-of-choice plans” (which were usually a Southern means to delay integration) when the plans desegregated schools. Kotlowski characterizes Nixon as a waffler here, especially since Nixon then affirmed his support for Brown vs. Board of Education. But I find it interesting to note that Nixon was actually telling Strom Thurmond that he (Nixon) believed in desegregated schools.