On August 3, 1980, in one of the most repulsive political stunts in American history, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan addressed a rally in Philadelphia, Mississippi–the active artery of hate’s heart, the cruel city where three courageous civil rights activists had been lynched by the KKK a decade and a half before–and proudly proclaimed that he believed in “states’ rights.”
Everybody in that crowd knew what he meant. Reagan effectively declared that as President, he would fight for the rights of racist bigots, that he would stand with the folks who wanted those uppity coloreds to know their place, that he would wind back the clock of civil rights as far he possibly could.
Reagan’s election–and the reckless racial rhetoric he embraced on the way to the White House–made bigotry acceptable in polite company, after decades of efforts to make it intolerable. The 40th president led an all-out attack on affirmative action and other government measures to ensure that people of color had a place at the American economic table. He spat upon the legacy of Nelson Mandela and shamelessly mocked Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Just a year after appointing Antonin Scalia–one of the worst reactionaries to ever wear a black robe–onto the Supreme Court, he tried (and thank God, he failed) to place another aggressive opponent of civil rights, Robert Bork, onto the High Court.
From January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989, Reagan signaled that it was OK to treat people of color like garbage again–and people with real (or self-perceived) power heard the message clearly. We bore witness to the dark legacy of Ronald Reagan in Los Angeles in 1991. In Sanford, Florida in 2012. In Ferguson in 2014. In Baltimore in 2015.
We also bore witness to the dark legacy of Ronald Reagan in the slurs hurled at First Lady Michelle Obama after her stirring commencement address at Tuskegee University. Can anyone possibly deny that the Reaganites who demonized the First Lady regard her as little more than a welfare queen who got lucky, a social inferior who, in their warped white-nationalist worldview, crawled into the White House out of the jungle?
I recently finished reading David Maraniss’s 2012 biography Barack Obama: The Story. I was fascinated by chapter 17, “Genevieve and the Veil,” focusing on the young Obama’s relationship with Genevieve Cook, a white Australian woman whose romance with the future President lasted nearly two years. In a 1984 entry from Cook’s diary, she predicts that their relationship will eventually fall apart:
I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced – a black woman I keep seeing her as.
Ever since reading the book, I’ve wondered if the bigots who have berated the First Lady over the past six years would have hurled as much invective had her maiden name been Genevieve Cook, as opposed to Michelle Robinson. Would the impulse of prejudice had been dulled if the First Lady were white? Or would it have been just as intense, since the President was still black?
We’ll never know. However, we do know that Reagan created the racial climate that led to Obama becoming the most demonized, most smeared, most ill-treated President of the modern era. Every day we stand up to prejudice, we knock down Reagan’s sick legacy–and that legacy must crumble to the ground before we can move forward as a nation.