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Ronald Reagan, racist? Ocasio-Cortez didn’t say that — but the controversy reveals a lot about how Americans discuss race

·West Coast Correspondent
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Over the weekend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the Democratic Socialist and Fox News boogeywoman, sparked yet another conservative conniption when she took the stage at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas and said the words “Reagan” and “racist” in the same paragraph.

“One perfect example – a perfect example – of how special interests and the powerful have pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working Americans in order to just screw over all working-class Americans is Reaganism in the '80s," Ocasio-Cortez said during an interview at the conference.

She brought up one of Reagan’s favorite anecdotes from his 1976 presidential primary campaign (he lost to Gerald Ford that year) about a Chicago woman who was accused of fraudulently collecting public benefits under a variety of names. The newspapers called her the “welfare queen.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Ronald Reagan
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Ronald Reagan. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, AP)

"So you think about this image, 'welfare queens,'” Ocasio-Cortez continued, “and what [Reagan] was really trying to talk about… He's painting this really resentful vision of essentially black women who were doing nothing, [who] were sucks on our country, right? … That's not explicit racism, but it’s still rooted in racist caricature. It gives people a logical — a ‘logical’ — reason to say, 'Oh, yeah, no. Toss out the whole safety net.'"

The response among Republicans was fast and furious, with dozens of commentators rushing to Twitter to defend Reagan, whom Republicans have sainted in the years since he left office.

“I first voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980,” wrote conservative pundit Tony Shaffer. “He unified all workers for their economic advantage and success.”“So THAT explains how Reagan carried 49 states in '84,” added conservative radio host Larry Elder, sarcastically. “Black unemployment fell faster than did white unemployment. Black businesses grew faster than white-owned ones.”

“So THAT explains how Reagan carried 49 states in '84,” added conservative radio host Larry Elder, sarcastically. “Black unemployment fell faster than did white unemployment. Black businesses grew faster than white owned ones.”

“AOC says Reagan was a racist,” fumed Newsmax columnist James Hirsen, summing up the Republican rebuttal. “WTH is her definition of racist?”

So far, so predictable. But before the latest episode in America’s ongoing AOC melodrama concludes, it’s worth pausing to consider what it says about a larger problem in our politics. More than anything else — an example of how an emboldened Ocasio-Cortez is willing to criticize a Republican hero whose legacy even Barack Obama was reluctant to challenge; a case study in how conservative media outlets are gleefully demonizing the freshman congresswoman in order to drive traffic — the Reagan flap reveals how the left and the right talk about race today, and why they always seem to be talking past each other.

The difference between the two sides is simple but stark. The left believes policies — and the tactics used to promote them — can be racist. In contrast, the right seems to believe, or to choose to believe, that only people can be racist.

Consider what Ocasio-Cortez actually said at SXSW: that the “image” of “welfare queens” who were “doing nothing” but “suck[ing] on our country” was “rooted in racist caricature” and that Reagan used it to convince people to “toss out the whole safety net.” In other words, Reagan sold a policy proposal that would hurt a disproportionate number of minorities — cutting welfare and other social services — by tapping into stereotypes about African-American women. (For connoisseurs of historical irony, NPR has reported that the original “welfare queen,” who went by the name Linda Taylor as well as many others, may not even have been African-American.)

Next, consider what Ocasio-Cortez did not say: that Reagan himself was a “racist.” Rather than pretend she could see into the soul of a politician who died 15 years ago, she deployed the word "racist" to describe the “welfare queen” caricature — not the man who popularized it. She even said Reagan’s tactics were “not explicit racism.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Ocasio-Cortez at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, March 9, 2019. (Photo: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Now consider James Hirsen’s typically Republican reply: “AOC says Reagan was a racist. WTH [what the hell] is her definition of racist?” Hirsen chose to hear Ocasio-Cortez’s critique as a personal attack on Reagan himself — and to respond in kind.

How could you define Reagan as a racist, his biographer and former political ally Craig Shirley asked, if, as California governor, he appointed more African-Americans to government positions than any of his predecessors; if he was endorsed by civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy, Charles Evers and Hosea Williams; if he signed the bill that made the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday; if he appointed America’s first African-American national security adviser, Colin Powell, and America’s first Latino Cabinet secretary, Lauro Cavazos; if he received more than 43 percent of the Latino vote in 1980; if he left office with the support of 41 percent of African-Americans; and if, while on a college football road trip, he invited two black teammates to stay at his family home after a hotel turned them away?

Others continued in a similar vein. “The economic lot for blacks and Hispanics improved far more than it did for whites after Reagan’s steep tax cuts,” Larry Elder added. “In late 1982, Reagan’s second year in office, the unemployment rate for blacks was 20.4 percent. By 1989, his last year, the black unemployment rate had fallen to 11.4 percent.”

All of which is true enough, although other developments during Reagan’s eight years in office — slowing progress on school desegregation and a massive increase in black incarceration — present a more mixed picture. But the problem here is that conservatives aren’t engaging with the argument AOC actually made. Instead, they’re engaging — whether by design or default — with an argument she didn’t make.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, with Briahna Gray
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Briahna Gray, a senior politics editor at the Intercept. (Photo: Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

This happens all the time. On his deathbed, the Republican political consultant Lee Atwater apologized for having said during the 1988 presidential campaign that he would “make Willie Horton [Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s] running mate.” [Horton was a notorious black criminal who was furloughed from prison under the administration of Dukakis, the Democratic nominee.] “It makes me sound racist, which I am not,” Atwater said plaintively, completely missing the point that the issue wasn’t his personal views but the way in which he debased the campaign (and the criminal-justice debate) with a racist scare tactic.

When Donald Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, testified before Congress that Trump is “a racist,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump ally, trotted out Lynne Patton — an African-American woman and longtime Trump business associate who is currently a regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development — as proof that this couldn’t possibly be true. In response, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib pointed out that using “a black woman” as a “prop” is “racist in itself.” Meadows flipped out; Tlaib eventually had to clarify that she was “not calling the gentleman, Mr. Meadows, a racist,” but rather saying he committed “a racist act.”

In short, whenever Democrats use “racist” as an adjective — to describe a policy or a tactic — Republicans choose to hear it as a noun. This miscommunication has big implications for race in America. For AOC, and for the left generally, the whole point is that politicians being literal racists is not the only way race can affect politics. Instead, they say, policies themselves can perpetuate systemic racial inequality regardless of how their proponents feel about people of color. Race can also play into how those policies are promoted. And so it’s less about how Trump referred to countries in Africa and the Caribbean and more about how his administration responded to Hurricane Maria, or pushed for restrictive voting laws, or separated children from their parents at the border.

As if to prove this point, Ocasio-Cortez spoke at SXSW about how, even though “we act as if the New Deal wasn’t racist,” it was in fact “an extremely economically racist policy that drew literal red lines around black and brown communities” and “allowed white Americans to have access to home loans that black and brown Americans did not have access to, giving them the largest form of intergenerational wealth, which is real estate.”

The New Deal was, of course, a Democratic policy and the namesake for the congresswoman’s own controversial climate-change proposal. So AOC’s racial critiques aren’t restricted to Republicans. But rather than label President Franklin D. Roosevelt a racist for passing the New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez chose to focus on the fact that his legislation “really accelerated many parts of an already horrific racial wealth gap that continues to persist today” — and to ask how future policies might address those inequities.

In the end, acting as if only people can be racist serves to shut down a conversation about racial progress before it’s even begun. Arguing about who is or isn’t a bigot inevitably — perhaps even deliberately — leads nowhere; it’s an easy excuse to mount your high horse, stir anger among supporters who resent being called racists by proxy, and preserve the polarized status quo. Arguing about which policies are racist, on the other hand, is a much more challenging proposition. It also happens to be the only path that can lead to real change.


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