Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner wrote a strange Washington Post op-ed yesterday decrying the inspiro-pic “The Butler,” for its allegedly unkind portrayal of Ronald Reagan’s racial views. I was a little surprised by their complaints, since the Butler is quite kind to Reagan on a personal level.

These authors believe that the film “perpetuates an ahistorical caricature of Reagan as racially insensitive,” largely due his policy of constructive engagement regarding South Africa. Unfortunately, the historical record indicates that Reagan was….really, really racially insensitive. He received fourteen percent of the African-American vote in 1980. It’s rather surprisingly that he received even that.

Hayward and colleagues note preemptively one episode themselves:

For decades, Reagan’s legacy has been unfairly dogged by claims that his 1980 presidential campaign was marked by the use of code words and symbols that accommodated white racists. Critics point, for instance, to his post-convention appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been killed in nearby Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, and some commentators say Reagan was insensitive to this tragedy when he said, “I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can . . . at the private level.” But the former California governor, a strong believer in federalism, had been talking about states’ rights since the early days of his political career.

Hayward and company don’t explain what’s unfair in the critics’ charges. Reagan’s comments certainly were insensitive, but that hardly covers things. A subtle politician attuned to the symbolic meaning of his statements and actions, Reagan could hardly have missed the general implications of his comments. On the substance, Reagan was standing on one of best spots, within one of the best states, to exemplify why his career-long support for “states’ rights” was always profoundly inadequate.

Yesterday’s op-ed somehow failed to mention that Reagan had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Campaigning in Georgia, Reagan stated that Jefferson Davis was “a hero of mine.” This op-ed also omitted specific mention to his many coded references to race, such as his 1976 references to a “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

I wouldn’t deny or disparage Reagan’s personal kindnesses to individual African-Americans. He was a decent person to those he knew—something “The Butler” depicted well. This doesn’t change the much more important fact that his public record on race was abysmal.

Reagan’s difficulties go beyond various mis-statements, disagreements with civil rights leaders, or policy differences about incremental reforms in South Africa. His basic political strategy was to position himself as Barry Goldwater’s rightful heir in the GOP. Much of Reagan’s real base was among conservative Republicans in the post-1964 southern Republican Party.

I know of no evidence that Reagan himself held invidious racial views, but his limited-government views (like Barry Goldwater’s) were obviously congenial to those who did hold such views. In 1966, Reagan stated: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” Such views carried over into his presidency, for example in his support for segregationist Bob Jones University’s unsuccessful effort to maintain its tax exemption.

Whatever Reagan’s inner racial views or his private behavior towards individual African-Americans, he chose to court what might politely be called race-conservative segments of the American electorate. He and his party prospered politically by making that choice.

Historians and biographers, of all people, should realize that today’s Republican Party can’t diminish or run away from that legacy. It needs to create something more inclusive and better than the party Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan built.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.