In this unusual political year, there has been an effort to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. This is the last in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
In a large country with a long and often painful racial history, the list of those who have sought to impede progress and to poison the atmosphere is fairly long. Too long to capture in a single month. So, in this last entry in the Black History Month bios of destructive white people, here are brief summaries of some of those who have made significant negative contributions.
Spiro Agnew: Agnew is an interesting case of the person who saw an opportunity, took it and, in the process, sold his soul. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked Agnew as his running mate for entirely racial reasons. As Ronald Reagan said, the choice was a good one, “that will be acceptable to the South….(Agnew) has a good record of dealing firmly with rioters.” Agnew went on to do a lot of the dirty work on race before resigning in disgrace. (Note: Richard Nixon is not on the list because his record on race-related issues is a complex and not always negative one.)
William F. Buckley: Buckley was a niche player. He provided a comfortable resting place for bigots who would not be caught dead at a George Wallace rally. In his view, black people weren’t biologically or genetically inferior, they just weren’t as “civilized” as white people. And, therefore, they would have to get more civilized before they could have their rights. This meant that, in places like the Deep South, even if black people were in the majority, whites were entitled to protect their position by any means necessary, including violence. His was racism at the 35,000 feet cruising altitude, based on the notion that segregation wasn’t that bad and that black people, none of whom he knew, shouldn’t be so sensitive.
Newt Gingrich: Gingrich has built a career on playing the role of the highly educated genius who is still connected to the little people, at least the little white people. He engineered the Republican congressional “revolution” of 1994, largely driven by racial animus and leading the morally rudderless Bill Clinton to adopt “welfare reform” and mass incarceration as Democratic values. Gingrich led the poisonous take no prisoners strategy that has produced the current Congress, frequently driven by the now widely accepted equation: government = taxes =”welfare” = black people. He labeled President Barack Obama “the food stamp president” and then denied that it had anything to do with race. More recently, he blamed President Obama for a horrific crime committed in Chicago by four young black people. Like his predecessors, Gingrich denies all prejudices, recently claiming that white people don’t understand what being black in America means. Of course, the explanations are all abstractions, things like “we’ve stalled out on cultural, economic, practical progress.” Newt the eternal innocent.
Frank Rizzo: In addition to being a force for racial oppression, Rizzo, Philadelphia police chief and mayor, was also a type. A northern Bull Connor who employed the same tactics as the Birmingham chief, but didn’t get the same level of opprobrium. Other cities, like Chicago, Los Angeles and Milwaukee all had racist police chiefs, men who defined cultures that have persisted to this day, despite efforts to diversify police forces and modify behaviors. These men, and their departments, enforced racial norms and segregation, often through violence and illegality, brutalized minority citizens and did the dirty work of keeping minorities “in their place.” To non-white residents, they were a vicious army of occupation. To most white residents, they – and their chiefs – were good, tough cops. In every instance, they left legacies of poisonous race relations.
Phyllis Schlafly: David Duke and Robert Shelton were Grand or Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan, and they did a lot of bad things. Duke is still on the scene. But their impact on society was minimal. The same cannot be said for Schlafly who played a leading role in bringing bigoted Democrats into the Republican Party in the 1960s. Schlafly was the most prominent woman advocate of segregation and opposition to all civil rights laws. She never changed, in later life advocating for reduced immigration, unless the immigrants were white.
This is the last piece in the Black History Month series. The purpose of the series was to present an alternative narrative to one that has been increasingly accepted among certain groups. That narrative painted a picture of slavery and segregation that was benign; of the civil rights movement and laws, along with tools such as affirmative action, as great evils; and of white innocence in all matters racial.
The purpose of the series was not to “lay a guilt trip” on white people, who, like any other group, live their lives on a broad continuum that includes outstanding moral leaders and destructive ones. This series focused on the latter group because they have not received the attention that they deserved; their images have been distorted in a positive direction; and they have done great damage to our society.
In our history, there have been a number of white leaders and others who have used race to perpetuate a system of racism and to make the lives of black people miserable. Unlike Wallace, few have ever repented for what they did.
We are a country in great need of racial reconciliation. The starting point is to acknowledge the problems that we face and search for solutions rather than pointing fingers. Making use of history is an honest way of defining those problems and how we got to where we are.
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.