Friday, July 16, 2010

"A few isolated groups in the backwater of American life"

The NAACP has this week proposed a resolution which will condemn the Tea Party for its tolerance of racism within its ranks.

At the risk of this blog turning into Gipper-and Palin-watch*, I was interested in the former Alaskan governor's Facebook riposte which, yet again, evokes Ronald Reagan:
President Reagan called America’s past racism “a legacy of evil” against which we have seen the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights. He condemned any sort of racism, as all good and decent people do today. He also called it a “point of pride for all Americans” that as a nation, we have successfully struggled to overcome this evil. Reagan rightly declared that “there is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country,” and he warned that we must never go back to the racism of our past.
This opened a straightforward denial and evasion of the issue which the NAACP provocatively addressed, reinforced by an avowal of personal colourblindness - which, like Reagan, she expressed as founded in her family experience.

Palin found in Reagan's 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, known most for its "evil empire" line, his declaration of a post-racist America. She might have also noted his horror at "the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice" and his call for the audience to "use the mighty voice of your pulpits and the powerful standing of your churches to denounce and isolate these hate groups in our midst". Still, she is generally accurate in her representation of Reagan's belief in America's triumph over its racial division. This was a self-deception, albeit one that was practical and politically useful - allowing Reagan to incorporate the Civil Rights Act he opposed into a narrative of American exceptionalism, and ignore the southern strategy which he employed.

More appropriately, Palin might have quoted Reagan's speech in 1981 to the NAACP's annual convention:
A few isolated groups in the backwater of American life still hold perverted notions of what America is all about. Recently in some places in the nation there's been a disturbing reoccurrence of bigotry and violence. If I may, from the platform of this organization, known for its tolerance, I would like to address a few remarks to those groups who still adhere to senseless racism and religious prejudice, to those individuals who persist in such hateful behavior.If I were speaking to them instead of to you, I would say to them, "You are the ones who are out of step with our society. You are the ones who willfully violate the meaning of the dream that is America. And this country, because of what it stands for, will not stand for your conduct."
The speech went on to acknowledge continued African-American economic inequality, but emphasised that the answer lay in tying the NAACP's goals to achieving general economic independence and ending reliance on federal intervention. In light of, amongst other issues, Reagan's opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the speech met a chilly response - and Reagan never returned. Later in his presidency, the chair of the NAACP , William F. Gibson, would call the administration "anti-black, anti-woman, anti-minority and anti-civil rights", and Reagan personally as "reactionary and racist".

Reagan's attacks on racism extended only as far as the extremist fringe, never to those he counted as his political base or allies. Palin echoes his political evasion. Still, the NAACP's resolution suggests a tendency to view any conservative movement as a resurgence of massive resistance, and to attack it, vigourously, politically and symbollically - evading any possibility of aligning African-American advancement with conservative aims, or effectively isolating truly racially-motivated activists.

*I have discovered another site which has taken on this role enthusiastically.

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