Every few weeks, it seems, a public figure accused of practicing or condoning racism says the same thing. And if they don’t, they have a friend say it for them.
In February, for example, a former high school teacher defended Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam after the revelation that a photo appearing on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page depicted someone dressed in blackface posing alongside another person clad in Ku Klux Klan robes. The teacher declared that “from everything I’ve observed, there’s not a racist bone in his body.”
A month later, when a 2012 video resurfaced of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) noting that he wanted to send Barack Obama back to “Kenya or wherever,” Meadows defended himself by saying, “There is not a racial bone in my body.”
And, of course, in 2017, after Trump was publicly lambasted for describing a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville as a protest with “very fine people, on both sides,” then-Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) offered up a similar defense, saying in an interview: “I know Donald Trump. I don’t think there’s a racist bone in his body.”
While many writers have rightly dismissed the “racist bone” fallback as nonsensical and metaphorically counterintuitive, especially given the history of pseudoscientific fields such as phrenology, few have explored the genealogy of the phrase itself. Excavating the development of this knee-jerk defense helps illuminate how mainstream Americans understand race, racism and the ideology of colorblindness — as well as the dangers of this understanding.
When it comes to this now ubiquitous defense, all roads appear to lead back to Ronald Reagan’s years in the Oval Office. Though there are piecemeal and disjointed references to the “racist bone” apologia dating back as early as the mid-20th century, its usage was neither frequent nor systemic until Reagan’s first term. Based on a Google Ngram search, the documented frequency of the “racist bone” defense grew most quickly between 1981 and 1986 and almost always applied to Reagan or someone in his administration.
Hatch invoked the trope multiple times to defend Reagan. In one case, Attorney General William French Smith joined Hatch in asserting that Reagan did not have “a racist bone in his body.”
The “racist bone” defense did not just apply to individuals: In 1983, during a hearing before a House subcommittee, a Republican representative remarked that “there is not a racist bone in the administration’s body.”
Republicans felt compelled to offer this defense because Reagan and his administration confronted regular accusations of racism based on their efforts to eliminate civil rights laws and their opposition to new ones. They framed their opposition to civil rights laws as part of their commitment to an exclusively “colorblind” approach to the law, wrapping themselves in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s supposed dream of a country in which individuals are judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Reagan quoted King’s alleged colorblind dream so often that, near the end of his first term, Diane Camper of the New York Times deemed the rhetorical move “The Reagan Race Phonograph.”
This embrace of colorblindness — a selective and distorted reading of what King actually advocated — enabled Reagan to frame his relentless attacks on civil rights as motivated by a morally righteous and apolitical commitment to equality. In doing so, Reagan was adopting a tactic that white anti-busing segregationists and affirmative action opponents had developed during the prior decade. This tactic emerged in a climate in which explicit racism was no longer openly tolerated in U.S. politics, but white Americans remained uncomfortable with and opposed to the policies necessary to ameliorate decades of racial discrimination.
As this rhetoric crept into the political arena, the “racist bone” defense rose alongside it as the default retort against allegations that opposing civil rights policies revealed a racist character. This pairing was no coincidence. While Reagan and his Justice Department brought colorblindness to the Oval Office, they also fundamentally reframed the federal government’s conception of racial discrimination from a group issue that could be addressed with policy to an individual one that required personal change.
This framing was essential to Reagan’s assault on civil rights. It raised the bar for proving invidious behavior and for justifying public policies intended to right past wrongs. And when one changed the metric from the marginalization of African Americans at a group level to individual misdeeds, the “racist bone” defense made much sense. After all, racism was a matter of body and soul, not public policy. What mattered was an individual’s personal conduct toward others.
Though minted by Reagan and his allies, the “racist bone” defense — and the ideology to which it is tied — has come to be embraced across the political spectrum. That the ideology of colorblindness has enjoyed such bipartisan support is a testament to the success of Reagan’s efforts. The reduction and narrowing of racial justice to a matter of individual kindness is possibly what helped to smooth out the contradiction between candidate Bill Clinton’s lauded 1992 sax performance on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” evincing his cultural fluency with black voters, and his support for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bill that further criminalized communities of color.
Following this now widely accepted logic to its natural conclusion, racism, as the argument goes, can be solved only by tapping into what is truly in a person’s heart — not by changing public policy. Policy can’t force people not to be racist, or so the theory goes.
But not only is this analysis incomplete, it is dangerously shortsighted. The political conditions that bring such unthinking shibboleths into being are worth historicizing. Tracing the genealogy of the “racist bone” defense helps to shed light on how the Reagan administration and its allies helped to normalize a discourse that suggests ending racism is a matter of individual benevolence and magnanimity, a discourse that makes it harder to grapple with the damaging legacies of centuries of slavery, segregation and racism.
This story was originally published on April 11. It has been updated to include President Trump’s July 16 comments.