Last week, I was in a Starbucks in Western Springs reading an abridged version of the 1968 “Kerner Commission Report” that was published this year (it’s introduced and edited by the New Yorker’s always insightful Jelani Cobb) when a white guy walked up to me, almost in disbelief.
Most people don’t know what the Kerner report is, yet alone have read it, he said. The report and the commission behind it, both established in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the civil disturbances or rebellions that took place in America’s inner city ghettos between 1964 and 1967.
It’s a particularly prescient document but also ironically forward-thinking and still lightyears ahead of our own era. The commission was 11 people — 10 of them men and nine of them white, including its namesake, former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. And yet, this was what they concluded in their monumental, if by now forgotten report:
“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The white man spoke about the report for a bit (and honestly, I didn’t quite know where this was headed) before mentioning his own book published last year by Beacon Press called “Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans and the Road to Trump.”
To his delight, I told Daniel S. Lucks — who grew up in Western Springs and was here visiting for a few weeks from California, where he currently lives — that I just bought his book several weeks ago and had read the first few chapters.
That serendipitous encounter turned into an interview on Monday in Oak Park, where Lucks talked about the connection between the Kerner report and his book about Reagan, whose policies and presidency the author believes foreshadowed the culture and identity clashes we’re living through today.
The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
What’s the main point of the book?
This is the first full-length study of Reagan that focuses on his civil rights legacy, which I deemed to be racist — both his politics were racist and his policies were racist. And I argue that he planted a lot of seeds for this Trumpism that is going on now.
Reagan was a very significant president. He was transformational in many ways. He did to conservatism what Roosevelt did to the New Deal. Reagan was instrumental arguing that government is not the solution, but the problem.
Some of these suburban conservatives who were complaining or lamenting that Trump suddenly hijacked the beloved party of Reagan. My book argues that, no, the conservative movement was infected with a virulent strain of racism from its inception and that Reagan practiced the art of racial polarization in a very subtle way. So, in my view, Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. This is a logical culmination of a broader trajectory of the conservative movement that was formed in the 1950s.
You write about the “new conservative movement” emerging in the 1960s, around the time of the ghetto rebellions, and these people like William Buckley and Barry Goldwater, who Reagan sort of looks up to. You say they were melding a new conservative coalition between anti-New Deal Republicans and Southern Democrats “to challenge the regnant New Deal consensus.”
Which is to say they were leveraging the fear of Black and Brown people that whites had into a new governing coalition. I think we see this in the aftermath of George Floyd with Republicans now attempting to invigorate their Trumpist base while using Critical Race Theory as a dog whistle to possibly peel away from President Biden just enough white votes in suburbs where Democrats did really well, so they can be poised to take back Congress and the presidency in 2022 and 2024.
I think conservatives would obviously dismiss my book as Critical Race Theory, but they don’t really know what it is. I wasn’t so fluent with the term either, but I’ve read enough of American history to know how slavery and racism are so intertwined with the founding of America and American’s national story that you can’t really divorce them.
So, yeah, I think so. One of the reasons I think that Republicans have been so successful in appealing to a lot of middle-class and working class whites who vote against their political interests is because they want to preserve their white privilege. Race kind of trumps a lot of their common class interests.
I don’t know how well it’s going to work among suburbanites who are educated. I’m not an optimistic person. I’m very pessimistic, particularly about global warming and authoritarianism, but I do think that educated, wealthier people who have some college, particularly women, I think they are a little bit more evolved on race than their parents.
And yet, Reagan’s impact wasn’t just on conservatives. Reagan also charmed liberals into moving against the kind of explicit government interventionism that was inherent in the New Deal. Right now, for instance, I couldn’t imagine Joe Biden or Barack Obama or Kamala Harris being as frank about this country’s racial quagmire as the authors of the Kerner Commissioner report.
You know, Reagan, by his sheer charisma and political success was able to alter the trajectory of American politics. Just by dint of his personality, he was able to repudiate liberalism and a lot of people agreed with it in this country, particularly a lot of white people. This idea that people can rise and fall on their bootstraps, which really ignores how racism is embedded in society — in housing, in employment, in health care, in education.
You just can’t wipe out racism by the stroke of a pen. You really need government efforts and a public commitment.
You argue that this blatant refusal to do anything substantial about structural racism was Reagan’s hallmark and one of his primary legacies, but you also write about Reagan’s tendency to create his own “alternative facts,” if you will — to a degree that was brazen (at least back then) even by the standards of your typical politician.
Reagan often made up spurious or apocryphal stories about how he was, you know, in Europe and liberated concentration camps, when he was never on European soil during World War II.
He also talked incessantly on the campaign trail about a fictitious welfare queen who had 50 aliases and 30 Social Security cards and 20 Cadillacs and blah, blah, blah. Reagan was a good actor and, as time went on, he often had a difficult time distinguishing fact from fiction. And, you know, he concocted a lot of stuff.
Reagan was a serial fabulist and that’s a really big problem in our politics now. You look at Covid and the Republicans’ lackluster response to it, and that’s a reverberation to Reagan’s callous disregard to AIDS. It was considered a gay disease and Reagan didn’t want to upset the evangelicals, who were called the Moral Majority back then. You look at his hostility to the environment. Reagan thought trees caused more pollution than cars. So, you see that same kind of mentality now among Republicans with global warming.
How did Reagan differ from Donald Trump?
I think he was very different from Trump in some ways. I think on a personal level, he was probably a nice man. He had good manners. He had class. Unlike Trump, he didn’t regard his political opponents as enemies. They were his opponents.
I think Reagan would have been kind to any person who was African-American. I never met him, but I’ve known a number of people who met him personally, even those who vehemently disagreed with him, always said he was a nice man.
But whether or not Reagan was personally racist is immaterial, because his policies were.