Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Nixon's Civil Rights 1

For Black History Month, I will be blogging through Dean J. Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy.

I will start with some things that Kotlowski states on pages 1-2:

"'When the historical record of the first four years is written,' President Richard Nixon wrote in 1973, 'I am confident it will show that this Administration did far more in the field of civil rights and equal opportunity than its critics were willing to admit.' There is much evidence to support that claim. The Nixon administration implemented affirmative action and set-aside programs for minority-owned companies. It desegregated southern schools and reformed Native American policy. Attorney General John N. Mitchell was not jesting when he advised African-American leaders in 1969 to 'watch what we do, rather than what we say' in the area of civil rights. Yet the President's courtship of conservative southern whites and forceful denunciation of busing, labeled the 'southern strategy' by contemporary critics, continues to eclipse his policies in general histories of the Nixon era...Nixon's public policies appear even more confusing when placed alongside his private remarks. Nixon's views on race are plain: while doubting black equality, he still opposed bias. In the presence of aides, the president could sound as bigoted as any southern segregationist...But this self-made man parted with segregationists in believing that African-Americans deserved the opportunity to compete with whites. 'Praise or blame, acceptance or rejection,' Nixon wrote one citizen, 'should be personal matters based upon individual achievement and not the accident of color or birth.'"

This passage highlights a salient theme in what I have read so far in this book: that Nixon was a complex man. Unlike some scholars, Kotlowski does not pass on the credit for civil rights accomplishments during the Nixon years to others, such as the Democratic Congress or bureaucrats. Rather, Kotlowski believes that Nixon as President played a key role in effecting civil rights accomplishments. Why did Nixon do this, when his public rhetoric and privately-expressed views were so often far from progressive on this issue? In what I have read so far, Kotlowski proposes a variety of factors. One factor was that Nixon was a calculating politician, and he wanted to retain the liberal wing of the Republican Party and be able to point to civil rights accomplishments against liberal and Democratic detractors. A second factor was Nixon's concern for the country, for he genuinely feared the eruption of race riots. A third factor was ideological. Nixon favored federal programs that advanced opportunity and mobility, and he also had a strong populist streak, which "championed the 'little guy' against people born with social advantages" (page 9).

According to Kotlowski, Nixon's civil rights policy itself was nuanced, for Nixon acted forcefully to help minority businesses; "advanced swiftly, then retreated", on affirmative action, "then allowed federal agencies to pursue their own fair employment remedies"; and flinched on school and residential integration (page 8). But Nixon long had a concern about civil rights. As Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower, for example, "he chaired a committee to stop bias in companies with government contracts", and he "expressed interest in school desegregation and fair employment" (pages 6, 8).

I'll close this post by referring to something that Kotlowski says on page 3. Kotlowski refers to moderate or modern Republicanism, which "dated to the party's birth and influenced Presidents such as Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower." This Republicanism envisioned "the small, independent producer as the bedrock of society", and sought to use state power to "ensure economic opportunity and social mobility." I wish that today's Republican Party were like that, rather than favoring the rich and being unconcerned about the plight of the middle-class.

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