In an interview the other day, President Reagan said he "bleeds" when critics accuse him of insensitivity on the issue of civil rights. Rather than being "some kind of bigot," he said, he always has been "on the opposite side of bigotry."
The complaint is not a new one for the president. As Lou Cannon reminds us in his biography, "Reagan," there was a flap in Reagan's first campaign for governor in 1966, when he stormed out of a meeting of the National Negro Republican Assembly in Santa Monica. His last words before his exit were, "I resent the implication that there is any bigotry in my nature. . . . Don't anyone ever imply that I lack integrity."
What triggered the storm back then was a comment from his Republican primary opponent, former San Francisco mayor George Christopher. Christopher suggested that Reagan's opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was substantively wrong and politically insensitive.
Reagan's contention was--and still is--that he opposed that landmark bill on constitutional grounds. The contention that the measure overstepped the constitutional limits on federal power was persuasive to only six Republicans in the Senate and 34 in the House. Back in 1964, the overwhelming majority of Republicans joined in passing what was then called the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. All of its components have been upheld in the courts.
In light of Reagan's contention that he has always been "on the opposite side of bigotry," it is worth recalling the major provisions of the statute the then-actor judged to be contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.
The law strengthened the 1957 voting rights provisions by such steps as requiring that literacy tests be administered in writing and making a sixth-grade education a rebuttable presumption of literacy.
It barred discrimination in places of public accommodation, including restaurants, lunch counters, hotels, theaters and sports arenas.
It allowed the Justice Department to sue for desegregation of state and local facilities, including schools. It barred overt discrimination in private employment. And, in its most controversial feature, it barred discrimination in any program using federal funds, on penalty of losing that money.
This is what Ronald Reagan judged to be unconstitutional less than 20 years ago.
Is that example unique? No, it is not. An issue in Reagan's 1966 campaign for governor was the state of California's first open-housing law, which Reagan opposed and his rival in the general election, Gov. Pat Brown, supported. Characteristically, Reagan said he deplored discrimination in housing but could not support an open-housing law because "infringement of one of our basic individual rights sets a precedent which threatens individual liberty."
There is a straight-line consistency from the positions Reagan took on civil rights at the very beginning of his political career, almost 20 years ago, to the rhetoric he uses today.
Whether the issue has been voting rights, school desegregation, discrimination in housing, jobs or public facilities, Reagan has always described himself as an advocate of the cause of freedom, equality and justice. And, just as consistently, Reagan's voice has been raised in opposition to the measures currently under debate for securing those noble goals.
So it is today. The cutting edge of the effort to reduce discrimination against women and minorities, particularly in the job market, is affirmative action. It is a principle that has been legislated by Congress, endorsed by past presidents of both parties and upheld by the courts. The Reagan administration has rejected it-- and Reagan himself regularly stigmatizes it with the phrase "mandatory quotas."
Because the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has been unsparing in its criticism of this turnaround, Reagan has set out to muzzle it. He has fired three of its members and named as replacements three people who--as he put it last week to the American Bar Association--"don't believe you can remedy past discrimination by mandating new discrimination. They are committed activists for genuine civil and human rights."
That is how Reagan would like to be seen himself, as a "committed activist for genuine civil and human rights." He insists his record is consistent and unblemished. And, in a sense, it is.
He is not a bigot. But he has opposed, every step of the way, the introduction and application of every significant measure of law that the Supreme Court, Congress and the state legislatures have employed to remedy outright discrimination and segregation in this country. Had his judgment prevailed, this American society would contain far more frequent and flagrant examples of dual-class citizenship than it does.
That is not a record of bigotry. But is also not a record to brag about.