Politics & Policy

Rethinking The Reagan Years

How I learned to stop protesting and love Reagan.

I was an active participant in the Left’s many causes and activities during the troubled era of the Sixties–and continued to pursue that agenda well into the 1980s and early ’90s. Ronald Reagan was often the subject of our savage attacks because he, and the burgeoning conservative political movement he led, was like Kryptonite to our agenda of radical “social change.” When I later became a part of the nation’s civil-rights establishment, I argued that Reagan’s policies were a disaster for black Americans. We groused about his “insensitivity” to black people and black interests. To press that point, we alleged that Reagan wanted to turn back the clock of civil-rights progress. We called the man a bigot because he opposed racial-preference plans. Infatuated with the ever-growing need for government programs and spending plans, the Left summarily rejected Reagan’s conservative approaches to social and economic issues. Rather than deal with the ideas involved, we chose to demonize the man.

#ad#The Left’s dislike of Reagan dates back to the “free-speech movement” at UC Berkeley, where Reagan, as governor of California, was charged with being too severe in suppressing campus radicals. It was said that his announcement for the 1980 presidential race–made in Mississippi–was a sure sign that he wanted to court the racist vote. Other grievances accrued. As president, Reagan pushed for welfare reform and called public-assistance abusers “Welfare Queens.” He referred to racial-advocacy organizations as “race merchants,” and argued that the livelihood of all too many civil-rights activists was built on a mythical racism that no longer existed. Reagan’s anti-Communism and strong stance toward the Soviet Union caused many in the peace movement to call him a “cowboy,” intent–they believed–on rushing America toward a nuclear disaster.

However, I now understand that Reagan was right to confront the rebellious activists of Berkeley’s “free-speech” movement, a battle that had brought all learning to a halt, and had spilled over into the surrounding communities. Reagan went to Mississippi not to court racists, but to bring southern voters on board, and to argue in favor of “states rights.” This had everything to do with Reagan’s views on localizing democracy and nothing to do with courting segregationists. He was right to fire striking air-traffic controllers who threatened to hold air travel hostage to their union’s demands. Reagan took on the issue of welfare abuse because he thought that it was key in dismantling the dependency and dysfunction caused by elements of urban-welfare programs. Today, the more enlightened elements of the civil-rights movement agree that welfare dependency is a bad thing and that welfare reform has been good for urban residents. Finally, time has proven that–far form being a warmonger–Reagan’s tough approach to the Soviet Union and his unrelenting anti-Communism produced amazing results. We now live free from the fear of a nuclear confrontation between the world’s superpowers.

It is in the arena of race relations that provoked some of Reagan’s toughest criticism. Often charged with being hostile to blacks, it is still common in black-community barbershops to hear it said, “Reagan never did nothing for black folks.” And it is true that he did not make extra overtures in an effort to court black votes. He believed it was dishonorable to pander to any specific groups, thereby giving aid and comfort to the growing politics of racial identity that had begun to gather strength in the 1980s.

Some civil-rights leaders continue to argue that the Reagan years were particularly dark days for black Americans. Is this so? The facts show otherwise. Labor Department statistics show that black unemployment dropped 25 percent during Reagan’s presidency. That translated into more than two million new jobs. The black poverty rate fell considerably after the second year of Reagan’s rule. The black median-family income increased by more than 9 percent after 1981 (under Jimmy Carter’s presidency, black-family income dropped more than 5 percent), and from 1985 to 1987, black middle-class families saw their incomes increase by approximately 10 percent each year. In that decade alone, the pool of upwardly mobility blacks grew by more than one third. Were the Reagan years actually boom times for blacks? This is a heretical notion to some, but may be true nonetheless.

Why is Reagan viewed as an antichrist by America’s Left? I believe it is for many of the same reasons that many in today’s Democratic party, Leftist organizations, Hollywood establishment, organized labor, and the civil-rights establishment revile George Bush. Reagan was a moderate conservative who stood for small government, localized democracy, low taxes, a strong national defense, and a common-sense approach to racial issues. With some key differences, George Bush approaches governing in similar ways, which are also the things that fuel a nearly pathological opposition to the Bush presidency. During his stay in the White House, it was said that Ronald Reagan was dim-witted, incapable of making his own decisions, had an itchy trigger finger, and wanted to push back social progress of all kinds. This may all sound all too familiar.

I can’t possibly make amends for all of the lamentable, counterproductive activities I engaged in as a former member of this nation’s “protest culture.” But I do know that Ronald Reagan’s life and legacy has taken on an entirely different meaning for me, as someone who’s been a registered Republican for more than five years. Ain’t life interesting?

Joe R. Hicks is the former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission.

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