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The Conservative Era From Reagan to Obama — Introduction:

In this episode, The Conservative Era: From Reagan to the Age of Obama.

The late 1970s and 1980s brought about a shift in American attitudes towards race and civil rights.

In this episode, we will see how the neoconservative movement was able to simultaneously embrace the ideals of the old civil rights movement and leaders such as Martin Luther King, while at the same time undermining the systemic changes that the civil rights movement fought for.

We will begin with one of the ideological underpinnings of a neoconservative movement — new racism. We will then look at some of the specific aspects of the neoconservative era under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., and Bill Clinton, as well as some prominent Black conservatives.

We will end on a discussion with Cornel West and Carl Dix on Race and Politics in the Age of Obama.


Hello, and welcome again, to African Elements. In this episode, The Conservative Era: From Reagan to the Age of Obama. The late 1970s and 1980s brought about a shift in American attitudes towards race and civil rights. In this episode we will see how the neoconservative movement was able to simultaneously embrace the ideals of the old civil rights movement and leaders such as Martin Luther King, while at the same time undermining the systemic changes that the civil rights movement fought for. We will begin with one of the ideological underpinnings of a neoconservative movement — new racism. We will then look at some of the specific aspects of the neoconservative era under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., and Bill Clinton, as well as some prominent Black conservatives. We will end on a discussion with Cornel West and Carl Dix on Race and Politics in the Age of Obama. All that, coming up next.

Civil Rights on its Head

The conservative shift in the political climate began prior to the election of Republican, Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, but Reagan was largely able to frame this new conservatism in a way that was appealing to the mass public. The new age of conservatism turned the civil rights movement on its head. While many see the election of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama as sweeping away the conservativism of the 1980s and 1990s and ushering in a new era, the Barack Obama presidency is finding it exceedingly difficult to move the public discourse in a new direction, as we will see.

One of the ideological underpinnings of the neoconservative movement which began to take root in the late 1970s is what is now referred to as “new racism.” The six basic features of new racism are as follows.

First, there is a rejection of gross stereotypes and blatant discrimination. Neoconservatives like Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. clearly embraced the ideals of the old civil rights movement. In no way shape or form did they support the segregation of the Jim Crow South. By the same token, most whites today genuinely abhor the blatant racism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi white supremacists. At the same time, many white Americans see racism only in blatant terms and tend to be dismissive of other more subtle forms of racism. Many whites, for example, have a hard time accepting that racial profiling does occur, and place the responsibility of African Americans being disproportionately targeted by law-enforcement squarely on the shoulders of African Americans who they perceive as committing the majority of crimes. They would point to statistical information that shows that African Americans represent most drug convictions, for example which in many ways becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, if the police are only looking for African Americans then obviously African Americans are going to represent the majority of convictions.

The second feature of new racism is normative compliance without internalization of new behavioral norms of racial acceptance, or political correctness. In other words, a rejection of blatant racism makes it hard for whites to say, “I’m uncomfortable being around black people.” Instead they will say things like, “I don’t see color.” New racism has largely co-opted and transformed the goals of the civil rights movement.

Yet another aspect of new racism is emotional ambivalence toward Black people and a sense that Blacks are currently violating traditional American values. It is expressed in statements like, “Why do you insist on being called African American? Why can’t you just be an American?” The implication here is that being African American means something different than being American. What is unspoken here that being “American” is universally understood as synonymous with being white, and thus African Americans feel as though they are being asked to deny who they are. Thus, many African Americans when asked the question, “Why can’t you just be American” hear that question and understand it to mean, “Why can’t you just keep me comfortable and pretend to be white.”

A fourth aspect of new racism includes in direct “micro-aggressions” against Blacks such as avoidance of face-to-face interactions. All aspects of new racism are subtle and therefore make racism difficult to talk about, but this aspect is especially hard to talk about because so much is unspoken. In other words, when a white woman clutches her purse as an African American walks into an elevator with her it’s difficult to call that out as an act of racism because one can never be sure as to the woman’s intentions. Maybe her purse was slipping out of her hand and she just needed to adjust her grip at that particular moment. There is, however, what in the legal world is described as a preponderance of evidence that suggests that often times acts like these are done out of fear and underlying racism.

Fifth is a sense of subjective threat from racial change, or acceptance of a zero sum notion of power in which a gain for one group is seen as a loss for another — – I win means you lose. One sees this expressed a lot in discussions of college admissions in which whites often see “their spots” quote unquote being “taken” by unqualified minority students. It is often perceived that changing admissions criteria in such a way that seemingly objective measures of merit such as GPA and SAT scores are minimized in favor of less racially biased measures giving an unfair and unearned advantage to minority students. The perception of a “meritocracy” remains even though it has been demonstrated repeatedly, for example, that the SAT test is a better predictor of family income and is of success of first-year freshman in college. Other measures of merit, such as personal narratives give a better overall picture of the student and what he or she brings to the academic community. Such measures are often looked at as non-meritocratic even though repeated studies have shown that there is value in having a diverse academic community. In order to see the value, however one has to remove oneself from a zero sum perception of power in favor of a perception of power in which a gain for one is seen as a benefit to the community as a whole. Lastly, new racism often carries individualistic conceptions of how opportunity and social stratification operate in American society. One sees this expression of new racism in statements like, “Why don’t minorities just work harder pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” Again, using college admissions as an example there is a widely held assumption that SAT and GPA scores are objective measures of merit. I’ve already discuss SAT scores, but GPA scores carry many of the same racial biases. The use of honors classes and the extra weight given of five points on a four-point scale means that students in schools that offer such classes gain an advantage, and those schools happen to be in more wealthy districts. A report issued by The Harvard Civil Rights Project observed that school integration was at the same level in 2004 as it was in 1969. Thus, African Americans who are still segregated in less wealthy districts are being penalized simply because their schools don’t offer them the opportunity to gain extra grade points. As a result, African Americans who might have a 4.0 grade point average may be competing with students from other districts who have a 4.1, 4.2, or 4.3 grade point average or four-point scale.

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Ronald Reagan And The Conservative Era

Ronald Reagan gave new racism mass appeal to the broader American public by his ability to shift the focus of public discourse. In doing so he was effectively able to turn the civil rights movement on its head. In reframing civil rights Ronald Reagan accepted the old civil rights agenda of desegregation but rejected the mechanisms to make it meaningful. So, while he publicly shared the belief that for example signs labeled “white” and “colored” represented an ugly chapter in American history, he rejected the institutional measures, such as affirmative action, that addressed the impact of discrimination.

Prior to his administration, the “Philadelphia Plan” sought to mitigate the effects of discrimination by setting hiring goals for construction firms such that government contracts would be awarded to minorities in numbers relative to their population. Ronald Reagan was effectively able to reframe affirmative action as a quota system that gave an unfair advantage to people who did not earn it or, put another way, “reverse racism.” Reagan, the great communicator, used a variety of terms to create the topsy-turvy world in which, most recently, Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Sandra Sotomayor, was openly referred to as a racist by none other than Rush Limbaugh.

A variety of terms entered the popular culture that had the effect of turning civil rights on its head. Public hostility towards programs of social benefit were fueled with terms like, “crack mother,” and “welfare queen.” Although it was never stated overtly, it was universally understood that terms such as these were a veiled reference to black women despite the fact that most crack users and most recipients of welfare at least until the mid-1990s were white. As the public was whipped into a frenzy over the so-called crack epidemic, in the public imagination, the crack mother was a crack-addicted black women who used public aid to purchase drugs while their children remained hungry. In other words, programs for social betterment are wasted on these women because they will simply use the money to buy drugs. The public bought it.

Similarly, the “welfare queen” was foisted onto the public imagination as a black woman — a cheater, a manipulator, a person who feels no qualms about receiving public assistance and, indeed, feels entitled to such assistance. In the public imagination, this was a black woman who took advantage of the generosity of the citizens whose taxes pay for social programs, who was obviously too lazy to work, and thus stayed, home to abuse drugs purchased with their cash public assistance. Reagan portrayed these women as if they were living like queens and getting fat at the public expense — and the public bought it.

The neoconservative agenda continued under Presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. Clinton, riding this wave of public backlash against the poor and people of color, promised to, “end welfare as we know it.” He did so with passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Notice here, the emphasis on personal responsibility — “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take some personal responsibility, you lazy people of color.” This was the most significant piece of legislation passed during the 104th Congress. With the welfare reform act, the government abandoned a guarantee of assistance to poor families

Welfare is now left to the state governments, assisted with block grants from the federal government, placing a five-year lifetime cap on recipients of welfare. Work requirements for recipients were put in place while doing little to provide adequate resources for the job training, transportation, and child care necessary for those on welfare to find meaningful work while raising children. The result was a measure that punished poor folks while subsidizing the workforce of wealthy corporations who employed participants in the so-called “workfare” program. The highly punitive nature of the welfare to work program was made possible as the result of the shift in public attitudes towards civil rights the poor.

Many black conservatives also embraced the neoconservative movement and the underlying ideology of new racism. In the minds of conservative blacks, government-sponsored social welfare programs are primarily impediments to black progress. Embracing many of the aspects of new racism, many conservative Blacks looked at the values, social norms, and attitudes of the poor blacks themselves and largely ignored racism as a barrier to African American progress. Many of you may recall the harsh indictment that Bill Cosby leveled on the black community, even pointing out mothers who name their children, “Shaniqua,” and “Shanaynae” as if somehow in doing so Blacks were responsible for their own racial oppression.

The prominent black conservative economist, Thomas Sowell forwarded a conservative black agenda that supported school vouchers to address the problem of failing schools in predominantly African American districts. In theory, African Americans would be given a voucher which they could use to attend a charter school with monies that would be otherwise allocated to public schools. The problem with the voucher program is there is no provision for transportation out of the districts that poor and minority students tend to be stuck in. Many believe that the voucher program will simply continue the trend of “white flight,” allowing those with the means to go elsewhere to abandon districts while those who don’t have the means to go elsewhere remain in failing districts that continued to deteriorate.

Sowell also supported a sub-minimum-wage which would allow workers to enter the workforce below minimum wage. In theory, he reasoned that doing so would allow African American workers to enter the workforce at a younger age, as employers would be more willing to hire them for lower wages. Again, theoretically, entering the workforce at an earlier age would allow African Americans a “head start” such that by the time they were 30 or so their wages would be equal to their white counterparts. In practice, however, the theory fell apart in that not only young workers, but desperate old workers were also drawn into sub minimum-wage jobs, and their wages tended to stagnate there.

Since the mid-1990s, Ward Connerly has led a vigorous attack on affirmative action. He became the lead spokesman for the anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action policies in the state of California with its passage in 1996. Connerly’s assault on affirmative action was based in part on the theory that affirmative action did little to help those who most in need, bu instead tended to fill, “minority slots” quote unquote with African Americans who were already fairly well off. There was a lot of truth in that. His critics, however, argued that while it was true that affirmative action tended to benefit white women and the black middle class disproportionately and tended not to impact those on the very lowest rungs of the social ladder, simply ending affirmative action was no way to remedy that defect.

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Race And Politics In The Age Of Obama

The age of new racism and neoconservativism continued to dominate the public discourse through the presidency of George W. Bush. Many assumed that the election of Barack Obama would usher in an end to the conservative era. As we will see, however, the Obama presidency continues to struggle with the legacy of racism and neoconservativism.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Gates was arrested in his home Thursday after he had to force his way in to overcome a jammed front door with the help of his driver. . . .

The arrest of so prominent a figure as the head of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies has reignited debates about racism in the so-called “post-racial” era of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Well, last week, while the NAACP’s hundredth anniversary celebrations were taking place here in New York, I spoke to Princeton University professor Cornel West and Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party about the current state of Black America. . . . This is Carl Dix.

CARL DIX: . . . And see, what is coming around on this is that black youth are more and more being blamed for the situation that the system puts them in. And you look at Obama’s last two Father’s Day speeches, he gets into this thing of, you know, the youth got to pull up their pants. The absent dads got to be involved in their lives. You’ve got—the parents got to turn off the TV and make sure the kids do their homework. In other words, the onus for the youth not achieving is being put on the youth themselves and their parents. And what’s disappearing in that are the continuing obstacles that this system puts in the way of black, Latino and poor youth who want to achieve. So, in other words, the people are being blamed, and who better than Barack Obama, the first black president, to blame black youth for their plight? If George Bush does it, people would say it’s racist. But when the first black president does it, it actually draws people into it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you share Carl Dix’s criticism of President Obama’s Father’s Day speeches?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I think that it’s quite telling that he would give personal responsibility speeches to black people, but not a lot of personal responsibility speeches to Wall Street in terms of execution. And when you actually look at the degree to which issues of accountability for poor people—but where’s the accountability when you’re bailing out these Wall Street elites, $700 billion? That’s socialism for the rich. That’s your policy. Don’t then go to these folk who are locked into dilapidated housing, decrepit school systems, many on their way to a prison-industrial complex, and talk about their fathers didn’t come through. And we know the fathers got problems. We understand that. But there are structural institutional challenges that he’s not hitting. . . .

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece after President Obama was elected called “Don’t Be a Buffalo Soldier.” Explain what you mean.

CARL DIX: Oh, yeah.

CORNEL WEST: That was a powerful piece. That was a powerful piece.

CARL DIX: Well, what that comes down to, the Buffalo Soldiers were the black, mostly former slaves who joined the Union army during the Civil War and played a key role in defeating the Confederate army and ensuring the abolishment of slavery through their military victory in the Civil War. Then, for a while they were stationed in the South, actually militarily enforcing the ending of slavery and the beginning of legal rights for black people. But then the United States government took the Buffalo Soldiers and sent them out west and had them fight in what is called the Indian Wars, which was actually carrying out genocide and the theft of the land from the native inhabitants, while black people were being re-subjugated in conditions of near slavery as sharecroppers. So here you have people oppressed by this system put into the military and then sent off by this system to oppress other people for the system. So, that’s what a Buffalo Soldier is.

And what I was saying to people is—remember I had said earlier, the youth were beginning to rethink America’s wars, because Obama is now presiding over them? Well, that was my message. Don’t be a modern-day Buffalo Soldier. Don’t let this system, which continues to oppress and exploit you, along with oppressing, exploiting many other people, turn you into a mindless killing machine and send you off to help them tighten their oppression on somebody else, while they keep oppressing you and others like you. So, that was what I was trying to get at with that. And some people were delighted by it; others found it to be too harsh. But I mean, my thing is like, if the truth hurts, it’s still the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the NAACP for a minute—

CORNEL WEST: . . . so, people would say, “Well, good God almighty, you’re working with the Revolutionary Communist Party, when they support poor people and working people, when they tell the truth, when they bring critique to bear on oligarchs and plutocrats and imperial elites?” Absolutely. “How could you also be working with the NAACP, bourgeois, mainstream, legalistic in its conception of equality?” Why? Because rights are also very precious. In each and every human being, it’s precious. Those liberties need to be defended. So, when they do that, I’m with them. When they are supportive of imperialism, when the NAACP is supportive of class domination, they must be criticized like any other set of elites.

And that was one of the reasons, of course, why I supported Barack Obama. We needed to bring the age of Reagan to a close. We needed to bring the era of conservatism to a close. We needed to initiate a new age. And we have now inaugurated the age of Obama, and it ought to be the age of empowering those Sly Stone called “everyday people.” The problem is, Brother Barack Obama, President Obama, is reluctant to step into his own age. …

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been talking to President Obama?

CORNEL WEST: No, not at all. No, no.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you met him?

CORNEL WEST: Oh, I met him initially, in order to join the campaign. Oh, absolutely, indeed. We met for four hours.

AMY GOODMAN: And now, since he’s become president?

CORNEL WEST: Oh, no, no. I think he holds me at arm’s length. And for good reason, and for good reason. Because he knows that there’s a sense in which I would rather be in a crack house than a White House that promotes neo-imperial policies abroad and neoliberal policies at home.

AMY GOODMAN: Why a crack house?

CORNEL WEST: Because a crack house, at least I’m in solidarity with folk who are sensitive to a pain. It’s just that they have the wrong response to their pain. Instead of being in a crack house, they ought to be organizing. But they’re dealing with their suffering. They’re just dealing with it in the wrong way. The White House, escaping from the suffering, and that’s why I keep my distance. I’m not against people who work inside of the White House; it’s just not my calling. That’s not what I’m here for.

As we can see, shift in American attitudes towards race and civil rights has made it difficult to address issues of race since the Reagan era. The neoconservative movement’s embrace (some would say cooption) of the ideals of Martin Luther King the old civil rights movement along with a shift in the dialog and new racism has combined to create a climate in which forwarding the very systemic changes that the civil rights movement fought for carries the risk of being labeled a racist (or at the very least – of playing the “race card”).

That’s it for this episode. You can see everything you’ve seen here as well as the entire archive of episodes at my website You can also join the discussion on our Facebook Group African Elements. I’m Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching.


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