| If one needs any more evidence that whites
and people of color live in two totally different places, politically
and psychically, one need only look at the visual evidence provided
by the death of Ronald Reagan.
More to the point, all one needs to know about this man and his
Presidency can be gleaned by looking even haphazardly at the racial
and ethnic makeup of the crowds flocking to his ranch, or his library
to pay tribute. So too will it be apparent from the assemblage lining
the streets of DC for his funeral procession, or gathering in the
Capitol Rotunda to pay respects to their departed hero.
They are, and will be – in case you missed it or are waiting for
the safest prediction in the history of prognostication – white.
Far whiter, one should point out, than the nation over which Reagan
presided, and even more so than the nation into whose soil he will
be deposited within a matter of days.
While persons of color make up approximately 30 percent of the
population of the United States, the Reagan faithful look like another
country altogether. As they gathered in Simi Valley – home of the
40th President’s library, as well as the jury that thought nothing
of the police beating of Rodney King – one wonders if they noticed
the incongruity between themselves and the rest of the state in
which they live: a state called California, where people like them
are slightly less than half the population now.
Doubtful. Most of them, after all, are quite used to never seeing
black and brown folks, since the vast majority of whites live in
communities with virtually no people of color around them.
That the mourners wouldn’t notice the overwhelming monochromy
of their throng is no surprise. But it has been more than a little
interesting that no intrepid reporter - or at least someone pretending
to be such a creature – has thought to ask the obvious question
about the racial makeup of those losing sleep over the death
Ronald Reagan, versus those who frankly aren’t.
After all, there are really only two possible interpretations of
the sanguine reaction by people of color to Reagan’s death: namely,
either black and brown folks are poster children for insensitivity,
or perhaps they know something that white folks don’t, or would
The former of these is not likely – after all, millions of black
folks actually forgave George Wallace for God’s sake when he did
a partial mea culpa for his racist past before his death – but the
latter is as certain as rain in Seattle.
What white folks ignore, but what most black folks can never forget,
is how Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act at the time of its passage,
calling it an unwarranted intrusion on the rights of businesses,
and never repudiated his former stand.
Or that as Governor of California, Reagan dismissed the struggle
for fair and open housing, by saying that blacks were just “making
trouble” and had no intention of moving into mostly white neighborhoods.
Perhaps they have a hard time forgetting that of all the places
Reagan could have begun his campaign for the Presidency in 1980,
he had to choose Philadelphia, Mississippi: a town famous only for
the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. And perhaps they
recall that the focus of his speech that day was “state’s rights,”
a longstanding white code for rolling back civil rights gains and
longing for the days of segregation.
Maybe they have burned in their memories the way Reagan attacked
welfare programs with stories of “strapping young bucks” buying
T-Bone steaks, while hardworking taxpayers could only afford hamburger,
or how Reagan fabricated a story about a “welfare queen” from Chicago
with 80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security cards, receiving
over $150,000 in tax-free income. That Reagan picked Chicago as
the site of this entirely fictional woman, and not some mostly white
rural area where there were plenty of welfare recipients too, was
hardly lost on African Americans.
Perhaps black folks and other people of color remember the words
of former Reagan Education Secretary Terrell Bell, who noted in
his memoir how racial slurs were common among the “Great Communicator’s”
White House staffers, including common references to Martin Lucifer
Coon, and “sand niggers.”
Perhaps they recall that Reagan supported tax exemptions for schools
that discriminated openly against blacks.
Perhaps they recall how his Administration cut funds for community
health centers by 18 percent, denying three-quarters-of-a-million
people access to services; how they cut federal housing assistance
by two-thirds, resulting in the loss of about 200,000 affordable
units for renters in urban areas.
Or how Reagan opposed sanctions against the racist South African
regime, and even denied that apartheid, under which system blacks
could not vote, was racist, noting that its policies were “more
tribal than racial.”
And it isn’t surprising that few if any Salvadorans or Guatemalans
who came to the U.S. in the 1980s, fleeing from violence in their
countries, were to be seen placing flowers outside Reagan’s library
After all, the former were forced to seek refuge here precisely
because Reagan was so intent on funneling money and arms to the
murderous death-squad governments who were responsible for killing
so many of their countrymen and women; and the latter no doubt recall
how Reagan brushed off the genocidal policies of Guatemalan dictator
Rios Montt – whose scorched earth tactics, especially against the
nation’s indigenous resulted in at least 70,000 deaths – by saying
he was getting a “bum rap” on human rights, and was instead a man
of “great personal commitment,” who was dedicated to “social justice.”
That whites would view much of this as irrelevant, even whining
or sour grapes on the part of communities of color, is only proof
positive that for many if not most such folks, the opinions of,
and even the humanity of black and brown persons with whom they
share a nation is of secondary importance to the fact that Reagan
- as many have been gushing these past few days – “made them
feel good again.”
But how can healthy people feel good about a leader who does and
says the kinds of things mentioned above? Obviously the answer is
by denying that racism matters, or that its victims count for anything.
Even more cynically, it is no doubt true that for many of them,
it was precisely Reagan’s policy of hostility to people of color
that made them feel good in the first place. By 1980, most whites
were already tiring of civil rights and were looking for someone
who would take their minds off such troubling concepts as racism,
and instead implore them to “greatness,” however defined, and “pride,”
however defined, and flag waving.
Whites have long been more enamored of style than substance, of
fiction than fact, of fantasy than reality. It’s why we have clung
so tenaciously to the utterly preposterous version of our national
history peddled by textbooks for so long; and it’s why we get so
angry when anyone tries to offer a correction.
It’s why we choose to believe the lie about the U.S. being a shining
city on a hill, rather than a potentially great but thoroughly flawed
place built on the ruins and graves of Native peoples, built by
the labor of enslaved Africans, enlarged by theft and murder and
an absolute disregard for non-European lives.
As Randall Robinson points out in his recent book, Quitting America,
when such subjects are broached, the operative response from much
of the white tribe is little more than, “Oh, that.”
Yes white man, that. That exactly. That thing we were raised to
gloss over, to speak of in hushed tones, as if by our diminished
volume or failure to audibilize it, it will go away; that perhaps
they will forget about it, and instead join with us in praise of
our country, since that is most definitely how so many of us envision
White people, especially those who are upper-middle class and above,
have no reason on Earth to be aware of the truth, let alone to dwell
on it. The truth is, after all, so messy, so littered with the bodies
of dead Nicaraguans, and dead Haitians murdered by Duvalier while
Reagan stood by him; so soiled by his support for Saddam Hussein.
Better to ignore all that, and to go mushy before the pictures of
Reagan in his cowboy hat, to remember a President who, for all of
his murderous policies abroad and contempt for millions at home,
at least never got a blow job in the Oval Office.
This is the twisted psychosis of growing up privileged, as a member
of the dominant group: a group that must view their nation as fair
and just, as a place struck off by the literal hand of God, as a
place where “average” guys like Ronald Reagan can become “great
leaders.” As a place where an “aw shucks” smile, and a profound
lack of knowledge about the details of public policy – or even the
names of foreign leaders – is not only not cause for embarrassment,
but yet another good reason to vote for someone; where refusing
to read up on important policy details prior to a key international
meeting so one can watch The Sound of Music on TV, is seen as endearing
rather than cause for a recall.
This is why we get people like George W. Bush, for those who haven’t
figured it out yet. Oh sure, vote fraud and a pliant Supreme Court
help, but were it not for the love affair white Americans have with
mediocrity posing as leadership, things never could have gotten
It’s why a bona fide moron like Tom DeLay can brag about not having
a passport (because, after all, why would anyone want to travel
abroad and leave “Amur’ca,” even for a day) and not be seen as the
epitome of a blithering idiot, and why he could probably be elected
again and again in thousands of white dominated congressional districts
in this country, and not merely in Texas.
Having to grapple with the real world is stressful, and people
with relative power and privilege never know how to deal with stress
very well. As such, they long for and applaud easy answers for the
stress that occasionally manages to intrude upon their lives: so
they blame people of color for high taxes, failing schools, crime,
drugs, and jobs they didn’t get; they blame terrorism on “evil,”
and the notion that they hate our freedoms: a belief one can only
have if one really thinks one lives in a free country in the first
In other words, delusion is both the fuel that propels people like
Ronald Reagan forward in political life, and then makes a rational
assessment of his legacy impossible upon his death.
I think this is why so many white people remember him fondly, and
are truly crestfallen at the thought of his physical obsolescence:
simply put, much of white America needs Ronald Reagan; a father
figure to tell them everything is going to be O.K.; a kindly old
Wizard of Oz, to assure them that image and reality are one, even
when the more cerebral parts of our beings tend towards an opposite
With Reagan gone, maintaining the illusion becomes more difficult.
But knowing white folks – I am after all one of them, and have
been surrounded by them all of my life – I have little doubt that
where there’s a will to remain in la-la land, we will surely find
Reagan has been released from the lie, finally, and may his soul
find peace among the millions of dearly departed victims of his
policies around the world.
Meanwhile, the rest of us must pull back the curtain on all phony
heroes, Reagan among them, lest we create many millions more.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father, He
can be reached at [email protected].