Ronald Reagan has said that he is the "originator" of the decision to change the IRS practice of denying tax-exemption to educational institutions that discriminate against blacks. He has also denied that the decision represented any change of policy. He was wrong on both counts.
The 1980 Republican platform forecast the IRS action, and erstwhile segregationists and present-day congressmen lobbied for the substantial benefit that tax-exemption would provide the private segregated schools and their supporters. The decision that segregated school tax-exemption would no longer be denied was as much a policy change as earlier decisions of the Reagan administration to end the federal government's support for inter-school transportation of students where necessary to end public school racial segregation, or to end federal enforcement of affirmative action, or to ask the Supreme Court to reverse cases permitting private employers to adopt voluntary affirmative action programs.
The black community was virtually unanimous in condemning these decisions, which reflected the Reagan administration's ending of the federal government's role, in the president's words, as "draft horse" of black progress. Although the outright reversal of hard- won federal policy to protect black people, and the continuing ambiguity of administration policy on the extention of vital Voting Rights Act provisions, were protested vigorously by representatives of the black community, Reagan's assistant attorney general for civil rights and other administration officials continued efforts to restore the preference that white males have had in both the economic and political marketplaces. In announcing the federal government's abandonment of remedial policies and practices such as busing and affirmative action, the administration has usually emphasized the burdens placed on white people and ignored the benefits derived by black people.
The decision that would have permitted tax-exemption for private schools established to provide a haven for parents who refuse to accept racially integrated public schools for their children was, for black citizens, another example of the Reagan administration's attempt to reverse hard-won progress in race relations in the United States. As had been the case with other atavistic racial behavior by the Reagan administration, black leadership expressed the outrage and the sense of betrayal felt by black citizens.
There is reason to believe that the Reagan administration expected the black protest and planned to ignore it, as it had ignored earlier expressions of opposition from black leadership. The Reagan administration did not miscalculate the reaction of blacks or the practical consequences of what they were attempting to do. What it miscalculated, and had every reason not to expect, was the opposition of the white community to the reversal of IRS tax-exemption policy.
Generations of whites who had opposed massive resistance to school desegregation were convinced of the legal unacceptability of southern school segregation. That religious schools had been created to avoid school desegregation in the South was well-known, and Northern white reaction was almost automatic: southern school segregation must be opposed by every means, including denial of private school tax-exemption. And opposed it was, firmly and clearly--and surprisingly. Northern supporters of northern segregated neighborhood schools (state-financed and federally aided) and northern opponents of busing, such as that which had brought about the southern public-school integration from which the students of the southern religious schools were fleeing, found the grant of tax- exemption to those southern religious schools (attended largely by children of rural and blue-collar parents) unacceptable. Because southerners, like blacks, are still a national minority, southern school segregation would not be supported. Northerners refused to believe that racial segregation of their schools is in any way analogous to the southern segregation of the past. President Reagan and his advisers did not understand that dichotomy of perception, and were caught in a buzz saw of negative reaction to the thinly veiled support of institutions designed to retain southern separation of students on the basis of race.
Black people are moderately relieved to know that there may be a point in race-relations recidivism beyond which the majority community will refuse to go.
But whether there will continue to be improvements in conditions of black people, North and South, depends on the erratic and unpredictable conscience of the majority white community. That white conscience is so different in its perception of racial reality from the perception of blacks leads to white acceptance of conditions blacks find intolerable. Certainly, the black community is grateful that white and black perceptions concur with respect to the unacceptability of tax-exemption for racially segregated religious schools.
What concerns blacks is that by not opposing Reagan moves to terminate federal support of other racial remedies, the white community appears willing to accept the racial status quo. For black people, that is not quite as dangerous as turning the clock back, but stopping the clock of black progress at the present status quo of inequality provides no cause for rejoicing and explains the anger and near despair of all parts of the black community today. The selectivity of white conscience that opposes southern segregation, but accepts it in the North, provides no cause for black rejoicing, even as some of its results are welcomed.