Episode 14 (Segment 2): Ronald Reagan And The Conservative Era

Uploaded by BlackStudiesOnline on 07.05.2012

Ronald Reagan gave new racism mass appeal to the broader American public by his ability
to shift the focus of public discourse. In doing so he was effectively able to turn the
civil rights movement on its head. In reframing civil rights Ronald Reagan accepted the old
civil rights agenda of desegregation but rejected the mechanisms to make it meaningful. So,
while he publicly shared the belief that for example signs labeled "white" and "colored"
represented an ugly chapter in American history, he rejected the institutional measures, such
as affirmative action, that addressed the impact of discrimination.
Prior to his administration, the “Philadelphia Plan” sought to mitigate the effects of
discrimination by setting hiring goals for construction firms such that government contracts
would be awarded to minorities in numbers relative to their population. Ronald Reagan
was effectively able to reframe affirmative action as a quota system that gave an unfair
advantage to people who did not earn it or, put another way, "reverse racism." Reagan,
the great communicator, used a variety of terms to create the topsy-turvy world in which,
most recently, Barack Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, Sandra Sotomayor, was openly
referred to as a racist by none other than Rush Limbaugh.
A variety of terms entered the popular culture that had the effect of turning civil rights
on its head. Public hostility towards programs of social benefit were fueled with terms like,
"crack mother," and "welfare queen." Although it was never stated overtly, it was universally
understood that terms such as these were a veiled reference to black women despite the
fact that most crack users and most recipients of welfare at least until the mid-1990s were
white. As the public was whipped into a frenzy over the so-called crack epidemic, in the
public imagination, the crack mother was a crack-addicted black women who used public
aid to purchase drugs while their children remained hungry. In other words, programs
for social betterment are wasted on these women because they will simply use the money
to buy drugs. The public bought it. Similarly, the "welfare queen" was foisted
onto the public imagination as a black woman -- a cheater, a manipulator, a person who
feels no qualms about receiving public assistance and, indeed, feels entitled to such assistance.
In the public imagination, this was a black woman who took advantage of the generosity
of the citizens whose taxes pay for social programs, who was obviously too lazy to work,
and thus stayed, home to abuse drugs purchased with their cash public assistance. Reagan
portrayed these women as if they were living like queens and getting fat at the public
expense -- and the public bought it. The neoconservative agenda continued under
Presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. Clinton, riding this wave of public backlash
against the poor and people of color, promised to, "end welfare as we know it." He did so
with passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of
1996. Notice here, the emphasis on personal responsibility -- "Pull yourself up by your
bootstraps and take some personal responsibility, you lazy people of color." This was the most
significant piece of legislation passed during the 104th Congress. With the welfare reform
act, the government abandoned a guarantee of assistance to poor families
Welfare is now left to the state governments, assisted with block grants from the federal
government, placing a five-year lifetime cap on recipients of welfare. Work requirements
for recipients were put in place while doing little to provide adequate resources for the
job training, transportation, and child care necessary for those on welfare to find meaningful
work while raising children. The result was a measure that punished poor folks while subsidizing
the workforce of wealthy corporations who employed participants in the so-called "workfare"
program. The highly punitive nature of the welfare to work program was made possible
as the result of the shift in public attitudes towards civil rights the poor.
Many black conservatives also embraced the neoconservative movement and the underlying
ideology of new racism. In the minds of conservative blacks, government-sponsored social welfare
programs are primarily impediments to black progress. Embracing many of the aspects of
new racism, many conservative Blacks looked at the values, social norms, and attitudes
of the poor blacks themselves and largely ignored racism as a barrier to African American
progress. Many of you may recall the harsh indictment that Bill Cosby leveled on the
black community, even pointing out mothers who name their children, "Shaniqua," and "Shanaynae"
as if somehow in doing so Blacks were responsible for their own racial oppression.
The prominent black conservative economist, Thomas Sowell forwarded a conservative black
agenda that supported school vouchers to address the problem of failing schools in predominantly
African American districts. In theory, African Americans would be given a voucher which they
could use to attend a charter school with monies that would be otherwise allocated to
public schools. The problem with the voucher program is there is no provision for transportation
out of the districts that poor and minority students tend to be stuck in. Many believe
that the voucher program will simply continue the trend of "white flight," allowing those
with the means to go elsewhere to abandon districts while those who don't have the means
to go elsewhere remain in failing districts that continued to deteriorate.
Sowell also supported a sub-minimum-wage which would allow workers to enter the workforce
below minimum wage. In theory, he reasoned that doing so would allow African American
workers to enter the workforce at a younger age, as employers would be more willing to
hire them for lower wages. Again, theoretically, entering the workforce at an earlier age would
allow African Americans a "head start" such that by the time they were 30 or so their
wages would be equal to their white counterparts. In practice, however, the theory fell apart
in that not only young workers, but desperate old workers were also drawn into sub minimum-wage
jobs, and their wages tended to stagnate there. Since the mid-1990s, Ward Connerly has led
a vigorous attack on affirmative action. He became the lead spokesman for the anti-affirmative
action initiative, Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action policies in the state
of California with its passage in 1996. Connerly's assault on affirmative action was based in
part on the theory that affirmative action did little to help those who most in need,
bu instead tended to fill, "minority slots" quote unquote with African Americans who were
already fairly well off. There was a lot of truth in that. His critics, however, argued
that while it was true that affirmative action tended to benefit white women and the black
middle class disproportionately and tended not to impact those on the very lowest rungs
of the social ladder, simply ending affirmative action was no way to remedy that defect.