Politics and Racism, As Usual
by Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry
It is significant to note that in the beginning, there was little to no attempt to camouflage the racism behind law and order rhetoric, and the callous or harsh criminal justice legislation proposed in Congress. The old segregationists, Mr. George Wallace, who ran for presidency, was out-front on the attempt to combine Civil Rights activity with criminality. He is quoted as saying, “The same Supreme Court that ordered integration and encouraged civil rights legislation was now bending over backwards to help criminals.”
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the debate shifted from segregation to crime. The lines were clearly drawn, and there was no attempt to hide the players. Those who were opposed to Civil Rights were the most ardent promoters of law and order. While the segregationists’ mouthing or verbiage did not prevent the death of Jim Crow, however, it did succeed in appealing to poor and working class whites, especially in the South. They were opposed to integration and angered by the Democratic Party’s support for Civil Rights.
Here is a super-significant development. The law and order rhetoric, or the combining of Civil Rights with criminality, would eventually contribute to a significant re-alignment of political parties in the United States. Following the Civil War, Party loyalties were drawn along regional lines. In the North, Republicans ruled the roost. In the South, it was the Democrats. For Black people, they were inclined, or disposed toward the Republican Party. In fact, during that time, or what is called, “Reconstruction,” there were Black Senators, governors, and members of Congress. However, during the Depression in 1930, and the election of Mr. Franklin D. Roosevelt with a New Deal promise and programs, Blacks began to shift to the Democratic Party. In the 1960s, another shift occurred. It came to be known as the “Southern Strategy.”
The Republican Party leaders came to believe that a new majority could be created, that would include the old line Republican base, white Southerners, and 50 percent of the Catholic blue collar votes of the big cities. Some of the Republican strategists were quite open in admitting that appeals to racial fears and hatred was a central piece in the Southern strategy; however, it would have to be done clandestinely.
Mr.H.R. Haldeman, one of President Richard Nixon’s top advisors, was alleged to have said that President Nixon deliberately pursued a Southern racial strategy. He said, “President Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
After President Nixon won the election in 1968, it was argued that the Nixon’s successful presidential campaign can point the way to long- term political alignment and the building of a new Republic majority if Republicans continue to campaign primarily on the basis of racial issues, using coded anti-Black rhetoric.
So, it came to pass in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were two kinds of thinking put before the general republic regarding race, poverty, and social order. On the one side, conservatives argued that poverty was caused not by structural factors related to race and class, but rather by culture, particularly Black culture. Remember, Senator Patrick Moynihan’s now infamous report on the Black Family which attributed Black poverty to Black subculture, and the “tangled up pathology” that characterized it. So, the poor, street crimes, illegal drug use, and delinquency were now argued by conservatives as having their cause in overly generous relief programs – welfare.
By 1968, 81 percent of those responding to the Gallup Poll agreed with the statement that “law and order has broken down in this country.” The majority blamed “Negroes who started rights” and “communists.” The conservatives’ ascendancy that took root in the Republican Party in the 1960s did not reach its full development until the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Crime and welfare were the major themes of President Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric. It did present a problem for the FBI which wanted to get involved in street crime. Traditionally, the FBI had been involved with the white-collar, big-time criminals, and the state local enforcement was assigned the street crime. However, the federal government announced that it would cut half the number of specialists assigned to white collar criminals and to shift attention to street crime, especially drug law enforcement.
In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s war on drugs. Now, here is another super-important point. At the time that President Reagan made this declaration about the war on drugs, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.
Hence, the public was more concerned about race than about drugs. So was President Reagan, but he couched his racism under the guise of a war on drug users and dealers. All who embraced the same mindset or ideology, followed in his train. Thus, the deeper we look into the escalation of incarceration, or mass arrests and aging prisoners, we find the two main ingredients in American society: politics and race.