I finished Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights. In his epilogue, Kotlowski offers his assessment of President Richard Nixon’s civil rights policies. In some areas, Nixon followed others, either activist federal courts or the Democratic-controlled Congress. This was evident on such issues as school desegregation in the South, voting rights, lowering the voting age to eighteen, Title IX, and the Equal Rights Amendment. On other issues, such as tribal self-determination and assistance to African-American colleges and minority-owned businesses, Nixon was more of a leader.
In terms of the effects of Nixon’s policies, Kotlowski sees positives and negatives. Affirmative action opened the door for minorities to get professional or managerial positions, and that allowed U.S. firms to gain “a cultural advantage over European and Japanese competitors in the race for global alliances and international business deals” (page 262). But affirmative action “did not touch all blacks and still left them overrepresented in low-wage, unskilled jobs” (page 261). As African-American historian John Hope Franklin argued, the African-American middle class was increasing, but so was the African-American underclass. President Nixon’s lack of emphasis on integration had negative results, according to Kotlowski, for it left blacks and whites separate and unequal, and the later location of service- and information-based industries in the suburbs “added new layers onto the walls of segregation” (page 262). A positive element of Nixon’s policies, according to Kotlowski, was that they acknowledged that civil rights applied to a variety of people, and Kotlowski in this epilogue discusses Nixon’s revolutionary policies for the elderly.
Kotlowski argues that Nixon’s civil rights policies were significant because they occurred in an important time in history and set the stage for how subsequent Presidents handled civil rights issues. But there came a point when later Presidents retreated somewhat from Nixon’s policies. Kotlowski notes that Nixon’s detractor, Roy Wilkins, thought that Nixon’s civil rights policies looked good when compared to those of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush! Republicans in the 1990’s criticized affirmative-action and supported making English the official language, whereas Nixon was more supportive of bilingualism. Bill Clinton embraced the Eisenhower Republican ideal of using government to give people a hand-up as opposed to hand-outs, but, while Nixon mostly emphasized action over talk in the area of civil rights (and often talked in a manner that appeased Southern conservatives), Clinton was the opposite, focusing on talk rather than action.
In certain respects, this book was difficult to read because reality is complex, and thus it’s difficult to place it into a neat narrative. There were times when Nixon was bold—-dramatically bolder than his predecessors—-but then Nixon would retreat somewhat, or he would pursue a middle ground. It was hard to make firm, definitive statements on Nixon’s civil rights policies because there were paradoxes and contradictions, but Kotlowski did rather well in his attempt. While I applaud Kotlowski’s attention to detail and nuance throughout this book, there were a couple of times when I wished he provided more detail. For example, what were the long-term effects of Nixon’s policies to help minority-owned businesses and colleges? Did they make a significant impact, and, if so, why is there still a lot of poverty among African-Americans? Was it due to any deficiency in Nixon’s programs?
This is a good book to read. There was plenty of material in it that my blog posts did not cover! There are two more days of Black History Month for this year, and we’ll see what I blog about. Stay tuned!