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Ronald Reagan: The 100-Year-Old Racist?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Ronald Reagan "tortured" blacks. Tavis Smiley, the PBS television host, once said this about the former president. NBC's Bryant Gumbel and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, among many others, consider Reagan a racist.

"There they go again," as Reagan might have said.

The economic lot for blacks and Hispanics improved far more than it did for whites after Reagan's steep tax cuts. In late 1982, Reagan's second year in office, the unemployment rate for blacks was 20.4 percent. By 1989, his last year, the black unemployment rate had fallen to 11.4 percent -- a 9 percent drop. In late 1982, the unemployment rate for Hispanics was 15.3 percent. By 1989, it had fallen to 8 percent -- a drop of over 7 percentage points. White unemployment, by contrast, fell "only" 4 percentage points.

What about black-owned businesses? In 1982, according to the Census Bureau, there were 308,000 black-owned businesses. By 1987, the number had increased to 424,000, up 38 percent. The number of all U.S. businesses was up "only" 14 percent. Receipts for black-owned businesses went from less than $10 billion to nearly $20 billion -- a 100 percent increase.

But didn't Reagan apply the "racist" so-called "Southern Strategy" to get elected? And weren't the Southern Republicans on whom Reagan relied merely racist former Dixiecrats chased into the GOP's open arms on the issue of civil rights?

Pat Buchanan, former Richard Nixon speechwriter, invented the term "Southern strategy." "We would build our Republican Party," he said, "on a foundation of states' rights, human rights, small government and a strong national defense, and leave it to the 'party of (Democratic Georgia Gov. Lester) Maddox, (1966 Democratic challenger against Spiro Agnew for Maryland governor George) Mahoney and (Democratic Alabama Gov. George) Wallace to squeeze the last ounces of political juice out of the rotting fruit of racial injustice.'"

For over 100 years after the end of the Civil War, Southern whites supported de facto and de jure segregation against blacks. Yet Southerners, unlike Democrats in other parts of the country, believed in low taxes, smaller government and a strong national defense. On social and cultural issues, Southerners were more religious and less supportive of abortion. Racism against blacks was the glue that bound the South to the Democratic Party.

Then came the modern civil rights movement, followed by the civil rights acts of the '60s. Southern whites knew their world had forever changed. Racism -- legally, politically and morally -- was in full retreat. With segregation as a dying issue, Southerners turned their attention to other matter: low taxes, smaller government and support for the Vietnam War and a strong national defense. The Republican Party fit their political views and cultural values more than did the Democratic Party. How could the GOP serve as a refuge for bigots when the party's House and Senate members voted for the civil rights acts, by percentage, more than did their Democratic counterparts?

But didn't Reagan appeal to Southern racism by giving a "states' rights" speech in Philadelphia, Miss., a town immortalized in the movie "Mississippi Burning"? In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered there. To the left, "states' rights" is code for preferred parking at a Klan rally.

Reagan spoke for 15 minutes at the Neshoba County Fair, about seven miles outside of Philadelphia, in that politically "in-play" state carried by Jimmy Carter four years earlier by 14,000 votes. Eight years later, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis spoke at the same Neshoba fair.

Here's what Reagan said at the fair about "states' rights": "Programs like education and others that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states' rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and the private level."

Not exactly, "Turn back the clock!" And immediately following his speech, Reagan headed to New York, where he spoke before the Urban League, one of the nation's oldest black civil rights organizations.

Yes, Reagan opposed race-based government "affirmative action." Democratic icon President Jack Kennedy, in a 1963 interview, said: "I don't think we can undo the past. In fact, the past is going to be with us for a good many years in uneducated men and women who lost their chance for a decent education. We have to do the best we can now ... but not hard and fast quotas. We are too mixed, this society of ours, to begin to divide ourselves on the basis of race or color."

Even among blacks in the 1960s, there was opposition to state-sponsored racial preferences. Bayard Rustin, a top MLK aide who was gay, opposed preferences. So did the National Urban League board of directors.

Reagan hired future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and future Secretary of State Colin Powell. He signed legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday and signed an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act for another 25 years. He granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal aliens.

Ronald Reagan was no racist. Happy 100th, Mr. President.

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