One thing that stood out to me in my latest reading of Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights was how elements of Nixon’s civil rights policy were conservative. I don’t mean rigidly libertarian, in the sense that Nixon opposed government intervention, period, for Nixon’s policy entailed increased federal spending in areas. Rather, I’m referring to a skepticism that Nixon had about the efficiency of the federal government, as well as Nixon’s preference for local autonomy.
For example, on page 182, we read: “As in his relations with black ministers, the president hoped to use the Urban League to bypass the government’s social service and job-training bureaucracy, which he deemed wasteful. Nixon promised to disburse government contracts, research grants, and manpower training subsidies to the Urban League…” Nixon had some tensions with Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, but both had the agenda of focusing on developing job and educational opportunities in the ghetto rather than integration. Young was all for integration, but he expected for African-American ghettos to remain for years, and so he sought to promote “ghetto power” in the meantime. Nixon trusted the Urban League more than the federal bureaucracy, which reflects a conservative disdain for government bureaucracy (at least in the domestic sphere).
On page 189, Kotlowski mentions a detail about Nixon’s policy towards Native Americans: “Nixon did not think it necessary for Indians to meld into Anglo society, and he recognized the need for separate Native American institution, a position in tune with his support for minority businesses. Nixon’s respect for tribal autonomy was analogous to his use of local committees to desegregate southern schools. As with their support of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Nixonians pumped money into Native American programs and the BIA”, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There were right-wing Western senators who were against Indian self-government, but Nixon’s conservatism led him to favor tribal autonomy.
In some cases, Nixon’s conservatism had good results, as it often did in terms of Native Americans and African-American businesses. In other cases, the results were mixed. Nixon’s policy of using local Southern committees to help facilitate integration was a good idea because it involved Southerners in the process, rather than imposing a policy on Southerners from the top-down. But expecting local Southerners to do the right thing on their own was not always prudent. That’s probably why Nixon did not hesitate to violate conservatism and to use heavy-handed federal pressure, when he deemed it necessary.
I’m intrigued by how conservatism can support progressive ideas. Back when my Mom was in a graduate program in African-American history, I was a young man with a John Bircher ideology. I feared a one-world government, which would undermine the sovereignty of the United States. When I challenged my Mom’s multicultural notions, she replied that many cultures do not want to give up their sovereignty, but prefer to remain independent. If my memory is correct, she referred to Native American tribes. That gave me something new to think about: that opposing a one-world government could actually coincide with an idea that is considered liberal, multiculturalism. Similarly, when I was a conservative, I had a great deal of sympathy for Malcom X and the Nation of Islam (albeit not for their anti-Semitism), although many conservatives I knew did not. For me, supporting African-American businesses and encouraging responsibility and family were solid conservative ideas. On these issues, I overlapped with some liberal colleagues.
I’d like to note another thing that I learned from my reading: James Brown was a Nixon supporter!
My reading over the next several days of Kotlowski’s book will not focus on African-American civil rights, but rather on the rights of other groups, such as Native Americans and women. I’ll still be commenting on his discussion of those issues for Black History Month, even if that’s not exactly appropriate, however, because my goal is to blog through this book for Black History Month, and that is what I’ll continue to do. Stay tuned!