For my write-up today on Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Kotlowski says on page 96:
“By the 1990s, federal courts, turning against affirmative action, had invalidated as gerrymandering many of the black districts fashioned over the previous two decades. Moreover, politicians and civil rights leaders who viewed voting rights as a panacea for the problems of African Americans grew disillusioned. While acknowledging that the 1965 act had broadened the political base, the historian Steven Lawson called it ‘a marginal instrument for black economic advancement.’ Nixon understood these limits. The president and his team knew that an agenda based on school desegregation, fair housing, and voting rights would crash against the rocks of white backlash. They sought to move the civil rights debate away from integration and toward minority economic development.”
And, sure enough, the next chapter is entitled “Jobs Are Nixon’s Rights Program: The Philadelphia Plan and Affirmative Action”. Nixon supported ending barriers to African-American employment, for he thought that discrimination against African-Americans resulted in a waste of manpower. His Administration backed goals and timetables, and civil rights leader William Farmer remarked that Nixon was “the strongest president on affirmative action—-up to that point” (Farmer’s words). At the same time, Kotlowski maintains that “Nixon’s fair employment policy involved ample give-and-take, and his support of affirmative action proved fragile” (page 98). What puzzles me is that Nixon believed that integration had the potential to be short-lived on account of white backlash, and yet one of his solutions was to push for integration in the work place. Wouldn’t that lead to white backlash, as well? Nixon’s policy of supporting minority businesses makes more sense to me, in light of his skepticism about integration.
I should also note that some of the issues above relate to the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington emphasized African-Americans working to improve their economic status, whereas Du Bois felt that Washington neglected the need for African-Americans to be involved in politics. Du Bois maintained that African-American political involvement was important, one reason being to defeat the laws that could hinder African-American advancement. Overall, I’d say that Nixon favored the Washington approach. It’s hard to generalize about this, for Nixon was complex, and he did work to ensure voting rights because (like Du Bois) he felt that African-Americans could accomplish a lot of good at the ballot-box. But, according to Kotlowski, Nixon deep in his heart was skeptical about integration, and so he preferred to focus more on helping minority businesses.