Epic Moments in African American History: Reagan and the Political Process of the 1980’s


Significant moments in history do not occur by random. If the US has been found to be an oligarchy masquerading as democracy, we have to imagine that there have been carefully selected actions taken and policies enforced that have brought about our current state.  The inclusion of causality in political discourse is dangerous. Doing so prevents the all too common absconding from accountability.

While I do invite you to take that with a grain of salt I would like to offer an example of what I mean. Among many African-Americans, myself included there is a strong belief that the government is and has been working towards undermining our ‘community’. When I voiced this opinion in my elementary social studies class my teachers dismissed it as non-sense. “The government cares about people, and would never want to undermine black people,” she said.

Building a case

President Ronald Reagan. Reagan did not support federal initiatives to provide blacks with civil rights. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. His opposition was based on the view that certain provisions of both acts violated the US Constitution and in the case of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, intruded upon the civil rights of business and property owners. Reagan engaged a policy of Constructive engagement with South Africa in spite of apartheid due to the nation being a valuable anti-communist ally, opposing pressure from Congress and his own party for tougher sanctions until his veto was overridden.

This to me paints a picture of a man who did not think favorable of Black People. (Jefferson Davies the leader of the Confederates during the civil War, being one of his hero didn’t help.) Does this picture match reality ? Is there any basis to what it depicts ? To answer that we have to look at the policies Reagan instituted.

Effect of the Policies Instituted

download (8)By the end of the Reagan years, the gap between rich and poor in the United States had grown dramatically. And because of favorable changes for the rich in the tax structure, the richest 1 percent, in the decade ending in 1990, saw their after-tax income increase 87 percent. In the same period, the after-tax income of the lower four-fifths of the population either went down 5 percent (at the poorest level) or went up no more than 8.6 percent.

While everybody at the lower levels was doing worse, there were especially heavy losses for blacks, Hispanics, women, and the young. The general impoverishment of the lowest-income groups that took place in the Reagan-Bush years hit black families hardest, with their lack of resources to start with and with racial discrimination facing them in jobs. The victories of the civil rights movement had opened up spaces for some African-Americans, but left others far behind.

At the end of the eighties, at least a third of African-American families fell below the official poverty level, and black unemployment seemed fixed at two and a half times that of whites, with young blacks out of work at the rate of 30 to 40 percent. The life expectancy of blacks remained at least ten years lower than that of whites. In Detroit, Washington, and Baltimore, the mortality rate for black babies was higher than in Jamaica or Costa Rica.

Along with poverty came broken homes, family violence, street crime, drugs. In Washington, D.C., with a concentrated population of black poor within walking distance of the marbled buildings of the national government, 42 percent of young black men between the ages of eighteen and thirty- five were either in jail, or out on probation or parole. The crime rate among blacks, instead of being seen as a crying demand for the elimination of poverty, was used by politicians to call for the building of more prisons.

brown_vs._boardThe 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education had begun the process of desegregating schools. But poverty kept black children in ghettos and many schools around the country remained segregated by race and class. Supreme Court decisions in the seventies determined that there need be no equalization of funds for poor school districts and rich school districts (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez) and that the busing of children need not take place between wealthy suburbs and inner cities (Milliken v. Bradley).

To admirers of free enterprise and laissez-faire, those people were poor who did not work and produce, and so had themselves to blame for their poverty. They ignored the fact that women taking care of children on their own were working very hard indeed. They did not ask why babies who were not old enough to show their work skills should be penalized—to the point of death—for growing up in a poor family.

Ironically, it was Republican Kevin Phillips who, analyzing the Reagan years, wrote: “Less and less wealth was going to people who produced something … disproportionate rewards to society’s economic, legal and cultural manipulators-from lawyers to financial advisers.”

Moving Further

One thing I have found interesting is that enforcing certain economic policies can create just as much of a nightmare for a people. Reagan during his life resisted claims that he was a racist. Perhaps he wasn’t a racist, I am not a judge or jury.  However his policies and stances have indelibly changed life I feel for the worse for African-Americans. His presidency to me is illustration how economic policy can use or exacerbate socio-cultural biases  to enforce and maintain a hostile discriminatory practices. I wanted to enumerate some epic moments in African-American History to me of course to give us a larger platform. I want you to see the event in history as I saw them and how they have influence my political stances and activities or lack there of.


Supplementary Info

download (9)With that said look as some of these highlights from Reagan’s Presidency that really stood out to me. The following was taken from this blog post.

  1. During the 1976 presidential campaign, he conjured up the racist and sexist image of the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” as anecdotal evidence of fraud in the welfare system. “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands,” Reagan said. “And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” The “welfare queen” fed into the worst stereotypes of black poverty and sexually promiscuous women.
  2. When he ran for the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the Klan murdered three civil rights workers 16 years earlier. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, an African-American and two Jewish Americans, were murdered during “Freedom Summer,” which was devoted to voter registration of blacks.   “I believe in states’ rights…. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment,” Reagan said at the Neshoba County Fair. He also promised to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.” Reagan’s speech was a wink and a nod to pro-segregation Southern whites who wanted to keep black people in their place like the good old days. This was a deliberate strategy, like Nixon, to polarize voters along racial lines without even mentioning race. In courting Dixiecrats, Republicans had given up on the black vote. And according to Reagan, the Voting Rights Act, which gave blacks the right to vote, was “humiliating to the South.”
  3. Reagan stepped up the war on drugs, which was really a war against people of color. He waged an assault on labor unions, and America’s homeless grew to more than 2 million. Reagan cut programs of importance to African-Americans, slashed low-income housing under HUD, and social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps that disproportionately impacted black people. He attacked the government’s civil rights infrastructure, sought to gut the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, and waged war on the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. Reagan even befriended the white supremacist government in South Africa, and vetoed a bill to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime.
  4. Reagan also questioned the integrity of civil rights leaders he accused of “leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice.” And he defended Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) when the lawmaker questioned Martin Luther King’s patriotism. He tried to secure tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University, then a segregated college in South Carolina.
  5. Reagan appointed conservative judges who were hostile to the interests of black people, such as Antonin Scalia, and appointed an enemy of civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Reagan also ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shelve discrimination claims by black farmers. Most of all, President Reagan gave Clarence Thomas a job, appointing the current Supreme Court Justice to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And the African-American community has been grappling with the consequences of that unfortunate decision ever since.