See Heavy Losses and Few Gains : Blacks Look Back With Anger at Reagan Years

Times Staff Writer

With something between a sneer and a frown, Walter Malone stopped eating his lunch of crab meat and rice to discuss how black people have fared during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as President. “He has set a bad tone for white people,” said Malone, a bare-chested construction worker from Arlington, Va. “He wants to keep the black man down.”

Norman Amaker, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, sighed deeply into the telephone and said that Reagan has done “a disservice to the American people. He has sent signals to the community at large that the civil rights laws will not be taken seriously.”

Two black men. One conclusion.

Malone has made no formal study of the Reagan era; he just knows what his experience tells him. Amaker, on the other hand, has spent the last four years combing through Reagan’s civil rights record and has written a book detailing it. “Civil Rights and the Reagan Administration,” published by the Urban Institute, compares Reagan with his presidential predecessors and concludes that he dramatically slowed a historical march toward equality.


Amaker found that on issues ranging from its support of segregated colleges to its opposition to preferred hiring of minorities, the Reagan Administration consistently antagonized blacks, aggressively refighting battles blacks thought they had won forever.

The professor and the builder are like many black Americans who consider the Reagan years a full-fledged effort to reverse the federal government’s traditional role as protector of civil rights and ally in their struggle for economic equality. The Bush years could be better, some black people say, but no big bets are being taken.

During the campaign, the vice president promised to help make America a “kinder, gentler nation.” Many blacks interpreted that to mean Bush Administration policies would be more sensitive than the Reagan Administration to black concerns. But there was also some skepticism because of the Bush campaign’s use of a black killer, Willie Horton, to focus on crime, which many black people saw as a shameless racist appeal.

‘Our Mission Together’

However, Bush raised hopeful expectations again Monday, when, at a breakfast marking the 60th anniversary of the birth of murdered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he vowed that King’s “fight for equality, justice, freedom and peace will indeed be still pursued in the years to come and forever more.”

Bush went on to say that “Rev. King’s dream for his children and for ours will be fulfilled. This must be our mission together. It will, I promise, be my mission as President of the United States.”

The words have a hopeful ring, but, Amaker says, “sincerity is always subject to proof,” and because of the Reagan record, “there is an understandable skepticism with which black people meet such promises.”

As for Reagan himself, he leaves Washington less than a week after taking a parting shot at civil rights activists, usually referred to as “black leaders” by white people.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes,” the President said of the black activists: “Sometimes I wonder if they really want what they say they want because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice.”

But most black people say they do not need black activists to keep alive their perception that racial prejudice exists, and they see such comments as attacks on racial equality.

Brought Blacks Together

Blacks are not monolithic in their view of Reagan, of course. Some say that Reagan’s policies have at least driven black people closer together and inspired a new self-reliance.

For others, Reagan’s promise that “a rising tide lifts all boats” has seemed to work. Oscar Watson, a wiry tobacco farmer in Popes Creek, Md., on the banks of the Potomac, credits the President with dramatically improving his economic life. “This country is really booming,” said Watson, who voted for Reagan in 1984. “Making a decent living is the first thing. And race is the second thing.”

But as the curtain falls on the Reagan years, a large number of blacks look back with anger at policies they believe contribute to racial tensions now and will taint race relations later.

Richard Harewood, an executive at a commercial grain house in Chicago, contends that Reagan Administration officials “tried to inflame the white community” and “instigate conflict between the races” by a drumbeat of attacks on civil rights. “You’d think that after all these years we would have some gains in understanding,” he said. “But with these hidden tensions now simmering you tend to believe that this thing can recur in the future.”

Last week, a nationwide survey of 3,123 persons of all races conducted by Louis Harris for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, reported that half of white Americans believe the Reagan Administration has been helpful to blacks, but almost 80% of blacks consider the Administration oppressive.

When a 1988 Gallup survey for Newsweek asked: “Is the federal government doing too much, too little, or about the right amount to help American blacks?” 71% of blacks answered “too little,” while only 29% of whites did.

It is a gap of perception.

When whites assess the Reagan Administration they often look primarily at such broad issues as taxes, defense and the economy, being less concerned with the effects of particular government policies on their personal lives. But blacks--while they too are concerned with broad issues--often look mainly at smaller bits of government policy because they are more immediately affected by them.

From the black side of the gap, perception is shaped by such Administration policies as:

--Relentless opposition to affirmative action programs designed to make up for past discrimination by accelerating the hiring and promoting of minorities and women.

--The 1983 reorganization of the Civil Rights Commission to reflect a conservative philosophy.

--Unsuccessful attempts to grant tax-exempt status to a segregated college, Bob Jones University, and to allow some states and localities to “bail out” of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

--The President’s record of overwhelmingly white federal judicial appointments.

According to the Justice Department, Reagan has appointed 385 lifetime federal judges, only seven of whom are black. In contrast, former President Jimmy Carter appointed 265 judges, including 38 blacks. Former President Richard M. Nixon appointed seven black judges--as many as Reagan--although he appointed far fewer judges, 238.

Amy Goldson, a lawyer in private practice here in the nation’s capital, said: “An Administration that does not allow a certain segment of the population to have a say in the judicial process is an affront, and gives the appearance that due process principles and tenets will not be followed.”

Last February, Stephen Markman, an assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy, testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Speaking from the white side of the perception gap, he said that “we would love to find more qualified blacks,” but added that there was “just not even a respectably small pool” of black nominees who were experienced, politically compatible and committed to “judicial restraint.”

Failure on Judges

But, from the black side of the perception gap, Amaker writes in his book that the Administration’s failure to appoint more black judges to these lifetime appointments “may also be viewed as yet another means of seeking to turn back the clock of needed civil rights enforcement.”

All black people, those well off and those who are impoverished, could be affected by civil rights policies and concerns over federal judges. But an entirely separate set of concerns over poverty programs also links blacks, whatever their economic status.

Blacks with comfortable incomes often cringe when they hear the words “poor” and “black” used interchangeably, but at the same time they empathize with poor black people; in the dispute over which is more important--color or class--color wins empathy, at least.

Thus, there is a special outrage at Reagan policies affecting the poor.

“One of the things that bothers me the most is that (Reagan Administration officials) refuse to admit that certain of their policies are detrimental to certain groups,” said Margaret Simms, a researcher at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies, which focuses on black political issues. “It would be one thing to say the policies were necessary and someone had to get hurt. Instead, they say (black people) didn’t suffer. That’s not honest and straightforward.”

The Reagan Administration laid a foundation for black animosity early by severely cutting a number of federal poverty programs. These programs disproportionately affect black people because blacks are more likely than whites to be poor.

Outlining his philosophy, Reagan told a June 16, 1981, news conference that the social reforms of the last four decades had created “a kind of bondage in which the people are made subservient to the government that is handing out the largess, and the only people who prosper from them is that large bureaucracy that administers them.”

Reagan leaves office still believing that anyone can make it without help from the government. In a speech last Friday, he asserted: “Too many (poor people) became dependent on government payments and lost the moral strength that has always given the poor the determination to climb America’s ladder of opportunity.”

Many black people, however, see the federal government as a way to get to the ladder in the first place.

Gail Withers, a social worker in Stokes County, N.C., where about 900 people are on Medicaid and more than 600 families receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children, said Administration budget cuts have made social programs “so tight now that the elderly and the poor are in worse shape than they’ve ever been.”

Poverty Rate Rose

The Census Bureau reported that in 1987 the black poverty rate rose to 33.1%, while the white rate fell to 10.5%. Thus, while the U.S. population is only about 11% black, social programs typically are 30% to 40% black.

In a recent analysis of how poor people fared under the Reagan Administration, the Washington-based Center on Budget Priorities said that while poverty remained high, food stamp benefits fell 15% between fiscal 1981 and 1987, after adjusting for inflation. The center also said that since 1981 about 408,000 families lost all benefits under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children, and another 299,000 families had their benefits reduced.

Through its attacks on conventional civil rights theory, the Administration has arguably made it acceptable for skeptical whites to question what had long been unquestionable: whether to maintain and promote laws designed to ensure the social and economic rights of black people.

The questions have led to feelings of alienation and disillusionment for many black citizens.

“Some of us are saying, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ” said Angel Irving, a public relations consultant in Macon, Ga. “It bothers me. I remember when friends, classmates, were fighting for a better world. We believed things were changing. We boycotted and rode the buses. Now we have to take a second look at where we stand in this society.”

Supported ‘Old Boy Network’

Jessica Daniel, a Boston psychologist whose clients are mainly from the black middle-class, said many tell her they believe the Reagan Administration has supported “the old boy network, people who have had money for a long time.” Many of the clients believe white employers “have closed their doors to competent, hard-working Americans,” she said.

Daniel said black people who are “clearly bright, have gone to the right schools, feel real frustration and anger at the realization that they will not be able to achieve what their white peers will achieve.”

In Winston-Salem, N.C., the Rev. Konnie Robinson, pastor of the Union Chapel Baptist Church, said he has seen and heard so many stories of despair during the last seven years that he now devotes every third Sunday to discussions of politics, federal policies and the American family with church members who, he said, “feel left out” of the political process.

In or out of it, the process, under Reagan, has not been what it used to be, according to Erica Tollett of the Center for Law and Social Policy. “The government’s role has changed from when it was aggressively making policies that were helpful to black people,” she said. “I think it’s a racist philosophy. It is definitely anti-black.”

Throughout his presidency, Reagan has expressed pain at such charges.

“Nothing has frustrated me more than the totally false image that has been created of me,” he told a White House reception for the National Council of Negro Women July 28, 1983. “I’ve lived a long time, but I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins.”

Reagan reiterated his claim that he is not a bigot in the “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, saying that “one of the great things that I have suffered is this feeling . . . that somehow I’m on the other side” of the struggle for racial equality.

Black officials in the Reagan Administration share his frustration.

Melvin Bradley, special assistant to the President, said that although affirmative action has been debated within the Administration, it remains “just as strong as it was in 1980.”

Asserting that “the number of blacks who have entered the middle-class has increased by one-third” because of Reagan’s economic policies, Bradley criticized past levels of spending for social programs. “More welfare and food stamps is not the answer to black problems,” he said.

Samuel R. Pierce Jr., secretary of housing and urban development, Reagan’s only black Cabinet member, declined to be interviewed for this story, although spokesman Leonard Burchman said that Pierce “loves to defend the Administration . . . .”

Protector Role Reversed

Nevertheless, Reagan’s policies have fostered the perception among black people that a longstanding White House role as protector of civil rights has been reversed.

Amaker wrote that from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter, no Administration sought “to subvert in any fundamental way the protective goals of civil rights laws that had evolved over nearly three decades. . . .”

But the Reagan Administration marked “a new path,” Amaker wrote, asserting that the path would have been even more damaging to black people if Congress had not resisted some of Reagan’s efforts. An example: The 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act became law after Congress overrode Reagan’s veto last March, reaffirming Congress’ intent to broadly interpret anti-discrimination laws.

Even before Reagan was elected, he sent signals that black people interpreted as hostile.

On his first campaign trip after winning the Republican nomination in 1980, he flew to Philadelphia, Miss., where the Ku Klux Klan had murdered three civil rights activists in 1964, and declared to an almost all-white crowd at the Neshoba County fair: “I believe in states’ rights.” He promised to “restore to states and local governments the powers that properly belong to them.”

For most black people, this was code wording for segregationist goals.

For Gail Withers, the North Carolina social worker, recalling that event is like pouring gasoline on red hot coals. Her anger flared as she accused Reagan of preferring white, affluent audiences. “He’s not color-blind,” she said. “He’s just blind.”

Like many black people, Withers believes racism in general is on the rise, and notes that a white boy recently called her 14-year-old daughter “nigger” on a school bus. “North Carolina feels like a hotbed,” she said. “You don’t know when the klan is going to jump out and get you.”

Many black people believe that Reagan has sent “signals” to white people, that he has fostered a “climate” that makes it easy for them to be racist.

Harewood, the Chicago grain executive, said: “People see this kind of conduct from the federal government and they feel they can get away with more.” Racist behavior has “pushed itself into the workplace” as white executives “move black people out and attribute it to downsizing,” he said, recounting stories about black friends in other companies.

But while the majority of black people believe Reagan has widened the gap separating blacks and whites, many also credit him for bringing blacks together.

Black people have “closed ranks,” said Jessica Daniel, the Boston psychologist, and “have become more active in organizations, joined churches.”

Reagan’s entrance into the Oval Office coincided with a a rising tide of white conservatism. But this tide also collided with rising black hopes of equality--hopes that had been building for more than two turbulent decades and that finally appeared to be on the verge of success, with the government as an ally.

Now, all that has changed, and calls to trim the federal budget deficit make it unlikely that there will be large increases in spending for social programs in the foreseeable future.

But what of the tone that Reagan set and the hostile attitude that black people perceive in him?

“The perception isn’t easily dissipated,” said Amaker. “And that perception may be the Reagan legacy. A lot depends on what future administrations do.”

If future presidents “enforce the laws as intended and exert the moral leadership required, the impact of the Reagan years will fade,” he said. But for black people now, he said, the perception is the reality.


Some reductions in social programs under the Reagan Administration; in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation.

In millions of dollars

Fiscal year 1981 1988 Training and employment $9,106 $2,887 Energy assistance 1,850 1,162 Health services, including community 856 814 health centers and care for the homeless Legal Services 321 232 Compensatory Education 3,545 3,291 Housing assistance for elderly 797 422 Community services block grant (funds 525 290 local anti-poverty agencies)

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities