When Reagan said "states' rights," he was talking about race.
An academic journal would seem a more likely place than the New York Times op-ed page for a pitched debate about a 27-year-old political speech. But the speech that David Brooks, Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, and guest contributor Lou Cannon have been arguing about for the last two weeks deserves the broader airing it's getting.
The bone of contention, as readers of "Chatterbox" know, is Ronald Reagan's 1980 endorsement of "states' rights" at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, close to the site of the ruthless 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. This matters because Reagan's election to the presidency that year hinged on bringing into the GOP fold several new groups—including the rank and file of white Southerners, the bulk of whom, for generations after the Civil War, wouldn't dare check a Republican name on a national ballot. Ever since, Dixie, once "solidly" Democratic, has been more or less solidly Republican.
The current row is about interpreting Reagan's defense of "states' rights" and his choice of venue. Was this language, in this place, an endorsement of the white South's wish to reverse the 20-year-old trend of using federal laws (and troops when necessary) to protect the rights of African-Americans? Or was Reagan's remark just an expression of his well-known disdain for "big government"—and his choice of Neshoba County an unhappy blunder? In the ambiguity lies the answer.
The first point to emphasize is that the claim that Reagan was not personally bigoted—the linchpin, for example, of Cannon's defense of the man whose life he has chronicled five times—isn't central. Personal prejudice is far from the only or most pernicious kind of racism, and politicians who don't think ill of blacks can still exploit racist aspects of our society for their own gain.
You have to understand that point to understand the conservative movement's triumph. After all, by 1980 or so, the civil rights movement had for the most part established racial equality as an undisputed good. Only in the farthest reaches of American political culture did public figures dare to make nakedly racist appeals anymore. Even segregationist standard-bearer George Wallace famously renounced his racist past in 1982 en route to re-election as governor of Alabama. These new social norms left no room for the rank white supremacism that once flowed easily from the mouths of many Southern (and non-Southern) leaders.
That doesn't mean, however, that America had attained "the end of racism," as right-wing polemicist Dinesh D'Souza claimed in a 1995 book. For one thing, bigotry continued to fester privately, in sentiments and stereotypes that people were loath to share with reporters or pollsters. Even more important, though, racial inequities had become intricately woven into many policies and structures of American life—from housing patterns to popular notions about crime and welfare—and any discussion of these issues invariably carried a racial subtext. It's against this matrix of racialized social policy that Reagan's rhetoric and ideology, and that of the conservative movement more generally, has to be seen.
In histories of the contemporary right, as historian Michael Kimmage has noted, a dichotomy exists. The conservative movement, which is highly self-conscious about its own history, has generated a library of triumphalist in-house chronicles, most of which deny that racism played a significant role in the success of Reagan or the right. In their telling, ascent stems from "ideas" such as small government, individual freedom, and anti-communism. This account, it should be noted, ignores that conservatives defined the first two of those ideas (if not the third) in ways that, intentionally or not, served to countenance racism. Conservatives spoke of "individual freedom," for instance, but they approached the concept from the perspective of a white businessman, not a black job-seeker.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Ronald Reagan by Michael Evans/The White House/CNP.