Rewriting Ronald Reagan: Reagan and Race

One common media-elite attack on Reagan’s domestic policy was the notion that Reagan was waging a “war on the poor,” which was often a shorthand way of suggesting a war on black Americans. Using their definition of “civil rights”—anything which adds government-mandated advantages for racial minorities is “civil rights” progress – liberal journalists suggested to less sophisticated readers and viewers that somehow Ronald Reagan was against liberty for minorities.  But it often grew worse, with inaccurate psychoanalysis which suggested Reagan was somehow gunning for blacks, encouraging bitter white supremacists by speaking of color-blindness.

Perhaps because they take all their race cues from liberal activist groups, the media ignored how blacks actually prospered in the Reagan years.  Even the liberal Joint Center for Political Studies estimated the black middle class grew by one-third from 1980 to 1988, from 3.6 million to 4.8 million. In addition, black employment from 1982 to 1987 grew twice as fast (up 24.9 percent) as white employment. Real black median family income rose 12.7 percent from 1981 to 1987, 46 percent faster than whites.  But reporters evaluated Reagan based on the evaluations of liberal friends, not hard data.

■ “I’m kind of surprised at President Reagan, because based on his personal history in Hollywood, I’m surprised he has not been an advocate of civil rights....I had heard that he was very open minded, broad minded person, that he cared about human rights....But the record is abysmal.”
— CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl on Howard Cosell’s Speaking of Everything, April 10, 1988.

■ “At the same time, some experts said, years in which the Reagan administration questioned the value of racial quotas and affirmative action made speaking out against such programs acceptable. This, they contend, made it easier for racists to openly express their attitudes. Groups like the Klan and the Skinheads have both begun targeting the young for recruitment.”
— Kirk Johnson in The New York Times, August 27, 1989.

■ “The right gets away with blaming liberals for their efforts to help the poor, but what the right is really objecting to is the fact that the poor are primarily black. The man who sits in the White House today opposed the Civil Rights Act. So did Ronald Reagan. This crowd is really fighting a retroactive civil rights war to prevent the people they dislike because of their color from achieving success in American life.”
— PBS’s Bill Moyers in an interview with Washington Post Magazine reporter Eric Alterman, September 1, 1991.

■ “The gap between white and black [life spans] has remained stubbornly wide, and it increased sharply during the Reagan years, when many social programs that helped minorities were slashed.”
— Time magazine staff writer Christine Gorman in her article from September 16, 1991, “Why Do Blacks Die Young?”

■ “We keep looking for some good to come out of this. Maybe it might help in putting race relations back on the front burner, after they’ve been subjugated for so long as a result of the Reagan years.”
— Bryant Gumbel on the Los Angeles riots, April 30, 1992 Today. [MP3 Audio]

■ “The Republicans, for 25 years, have seldom avoided the temptation to play the race card politically in this country....In the ‘70s, Ronald Reagan, and the late ‘70s, he ran for President in 1980 talking about welfare queens, associating the Great Society programs with minorities, and with waste, and with crime in the streets. There has been a consistent impulse, Willie Horton was just a continuation of that, to use this issue to divide people.”
— U.S. News & World Report Senior Writer Steven Roberts on Washington Week in Review, May 8, 1992.

■ “Emboldened by a sea change during the Reagan-Bush era, conservatives scolded, ‘it’s all your fault.’ Dismissively this camp insisted that what blacks need are mainstream American values — read white values. Go to school, get a job, get married, they exhorted, and the family will be just fine.”
— Newsweek General Editor Michele Ingrassia, August 30, 1993.
    
■ “In the wake of the somewhat new hostilities bred in the Reagan ‘80s, how do you assess the state of race relations in this country today?”
— Bryant Gumbel to National Urban League President Hugh Price, July 28, 1994 Today.

■ “The sad truth is that many Republican leaders remain in a massive state of denial about the party’s four-decade-long addiction to race-baiting. They won’t make any headway with blacks by bashing Lott if they persist in giving Ronald Reagan a pass for his racial policies....It’s with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, that the Republican [Party]’s selective memory about its race-baiting habit really stands out.”
— Time’s Jack E. White in a column posted on Time.com on December 14, 2002.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis