What Reagan meant by "states' rights."

The history behind current events.
Nov. 20 2007 4:09 PM

Dog-Whistling Dixie

When Reagan said "states' rights," he was talking about race.

Ronald Reagan. Click image to expand.
Ronald Reagan

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.

On the flip side, academic historians have put race at the center of their explanations of the right's rise. These histories tend to stress the migration of the white South from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Such history sometimes shortchanges the role of the Cold War, the Great Society, and the loosening of social mores—as well as factors like the evolution of Dixie's economy. The focus is on Republican opposition first to the civil rights movement and then to later, more controversial efforts to achieve racial equality like busing and affirmative action. At its most tendentious, the argument comes close to stating that Reagan came to power because America, or at least the South, is racist at heart.

Both accounts, obviously, are overdrawn. But there are a few more nuanced histories out there, including Chain Reaction by Tom and Mary Edsall (which Krugman cites in his latest column) and In Search of Another Country by Emory University historian Joe Crespino (who has weighed in on the Reagan-in-1980 controversy here). These credit the way that race has worked as an unspoken subtext in unlikely places. The key to the argument is that Reagan's successhinged on forging messages to Americans—not just Southern whites, incidentally, but also Catholic blue-collar workers and neoconservative intellectuals—that eschewed explicit racism while still tapping into sublimated resentments of blacks or anger at racially fraught policies like busing, welfare, and crime.

In its simplest form, this multitiered message relied on code words. No one who used the phrase "states' rights" in living memory of the massive resistance movement against forced desegregation could be unaware of the message of solidarity it sent to Southern whites about civil rights. (The phrase, of course, had been bound up with racism at least since John Calhoun championed it in his defense of slavery in the 1830s.) But because the term also connoted a general opposition to the growth of the federal government's role in economic life, nonracist whites could comfort themselves that politicians like Nixon and Reagan were using it innocently—and thus shrug off any guilt they might feel for being complicit in racist campaigning. It was a dog whistle to segregationists. In the same vein, Reagan's use of phrases linked to insidious racial stereotypes—his talk of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, or "young bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps—pandered to bigots while making sure not to alienate voters whom starker language would have scared away.

More important, even where code words weren't at work, Reagan's very ideology contained a strong dose of racial conservatism. On one issue after another, Reagan's image and appeal was shot through with a hostility to assisting minorities with positive measures—affirmative action, legal protections for criminal defendants, welfare programs (which mainly helped whites but were perceived as mainly helping blacks). As a standard-bearer of the conservative movement, the Edsalls have written, Reagan in 1980 "revived the sharply polarized racial images of the two parties … with racial conservatism contributing decisively to the GOP advantage."

As Crespino notes, the triumph of the civil rights movement and its assumptions about racial equality forced conservative Southerners to find other issues with which to galvanize voters. On these fronts, too, racial politics nonetheless shaped the debate. Southern candidates created private religious schools, for example, that could escape court-ordered integration, thus recasting the fight as one of religious freedom. In my own research, I've found that today's right-wing attacks on the "liberal media" have roots in George Wallace's relentless war in the early 1960s against the national news agencies whose reporters, he and other Southern whites believed, distorted the terms of their struggle to maintain Jim Crow.

The upshot was that by 1980, race and ideology had become so commingled that one's stand on racial issues served as a proxy for one's partisan preference. Previously, economic issues had been the chief dividing line between the parties. By 1980, though, according to the Edsalls, the changes that followed the civil rights movement had crystallized, and racial politics figured just as strongly. Almost 69 percent of the public, for example, thought the Democrats were likely to aid minorities, compared with just about 11 percent who thought the same of the Republicans. Conversely, roughly 66 percent thought the GOP "unlikely" to aid minorities, while about 12 percent said the same of the Democrats. Even talking about domestic government spending carried a tacit racial message, since public opposition to spending was highest and most intense when it came to programs devoted to the needy and to blacks. By contrast, support for government spending on Social Security, education, health care, and the environment remained robust even during the heyday of Reaganism.

Building on the efforts of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon before him, as well as of a generation of Southern Republican leaders, Reagan succeeded in altering the terms of political debate when it came to race. Stripping away the crude bigotry that had cost the white South the rest of nation's sympathy in the 1950s and 1960s, he and other conservative political leaders fashioned an ideology in which racial politics were implicit, and yet still powerful. Ever since, their followers have been able to indignantly claim that any allegations of racism are smears and slurs—and discredit the entire discussion by making it about personal prejudice rather than public policy.

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.