The Organization of American Historians featured a panel discussion at their annual meeting in April on Ronald Reagan’s speech in Neshoba, Miss., on Aug. 3, 1980. It was Reagan’s first post-convention speech and in it he addressed a few now-familiar issues, such as reducing the size of the federal government, restoring power to local communities, and helping people on welfare become more productive as many of them would like to be, and so on. He also mentioned his belief in states’ rights. (“I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.”) Read in context, the speech is really not offensive. But because of the venue, where three white civil-rights workers had been murdered 16 years before, and because of the mention of states’ rights, the speech has been condemned as an appeal to white racism.
Writing in 2007, David Brooks called this a “slur . . . a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.” Brooks concedes that Reagan might have said something about civil rights, but denies that the speech or the choice of venue was meant to be an appeal to white racism. This of course has not satisfied historians obsessed with racial grievance.
Be that as it may, what emerged from the panel discussion, or at least from the part that I heard on C-SPAN, was that not only are invocations of states’ rights racism, but also any opposition to affirmative action is racism, as are concerns about the deleterious effects of welfare. More recently, we’ve heard that objections to Obamacare arise from racism, and I suppose any demurral toward the redistribution of income, talked about more blatantly than ever before in my memory, is also racism. What all this means is the end of politics. Any disagreement with the left-liberal agenda is branded racism. Even disagreement on issues not mainly about race, or related only obliquely or by happenstance (because blacks and whites happen to live in the same country) are condemned as racism. What liberals want is a statist country of enforced egalitarianism run by Democratic-party bureaucrats. There is no such thing as principled opposition in their view. Why should conservatives even bother to listen to them?