Reagan didn’t make much headway with black voters during his presidential campaign, but he certainly tried, holding the Republican National Convention in Detroit (the first time either party had done so) and campaigning in the Bronx with a message of hope. He was endorsed by Hosea Williams, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s top deputy in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and by Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
While president, Reagan didn’t help his case with black voters when, in an October 1983 news conference, he fumbled a question about whether King had been a communist sympathizer. However, Reagan called Coretta Scott King to apologize, and the next month he signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in the presence of King’s widow and children.
Few in today’s civil rights community will admit it, but the Reagan administration rescued civil rights law from the political and constitutional dead end of quotas and racial redistribution. For example, the Reagan Justice Department applied a higher threshold of proof of discriminatory intent before an employment discrimination case could be brought to court. Previously, companies were presumptively guilty of discrimination if there was a statistical disparity between the racial makeup of that company’s workforce and the demographics of the surrounding labor pool. It was difficult, expensive and cumbersome to challenge this presumption, which is why most companies settled with Justice quota schemes.
The Reagan administration’s civil rights policy was guided by the notion that remedies should be directed toward individual victims of discrimination rather than to classes or racial groups. In some areas of the law, such as employment discrimination cases, civil rights enforcement activity increased relative to its pace under the Carter administration.
Films like “The Butler” can be good opportunities for a healthy consideration of our troubled racial history, but not if they persist with inaccurate portrayals. Rather than advancing a flawed portrait of Reagan on race, perhaps “The Butler” can start the process of getting Reagan right on race.
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about Ronald Reagan
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