Friday, June 11, 2004

'Reagan Revolution' wasn't for all

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As images of Ronald Reagan's flag-draped casket filled hours of news broadcasts this week, Patricia Keys kept the small TV in her clothing store tuned to talk shows and sports highlights.

It's nothing personal, she said. But she never felt particularly close to the former president or his policies.

"He didn't care about black people," said Keys, an African-American, as she stood behind the counter of her Keepin' It Real clothing store in downtown Cincinnati.

"Reagan was for the rich people," she said - "not for anybody who was struggling, or for people in poverty."

While millions of Americans praise Reagan and his legacy, there are some who remember the 40th president less than fondly. They are from segments of the population that often felt left out of the Reagan Revolution: blacks, the poor, gays and lesbians.

For them, the celebration of Reagan's life and work is a reminder of a divisive time in America, a time when compassion gave way to selfishness and greed.

"I know you're not supposed to speak ill of the dead," said Nathaniel Jones, a retired federal judge appointed by Jimmy Carter. "But his policies were devastating."

Jones and other liberal leaders have complained for years that Reagan's presidency dug a deep divide between society's haves and have-nots. Reagan didn't create the problems of poverty and racism, they say, but he made it OK to stop caring about them.

"There was less concern about the broader needs of all folks," said Calvert Smith, president of the NAACP in Cincinnati. "That was the tenor of the country then, and it continues to be the tenor of the country."

When Reagan's critics recall his legacy, they are less likely than other Americans to think first about his personable nature, economic growth or his historic "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin.

Instead, they cite his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, his refusal to support significant sanctions against apartheid South Africa, his failure to quickly act on the AIDS epidemic and his cuts in government funding for social programs.

"It's fair to say the 1980s is seen as an era of significant hostility toward African-Americans, people with HIV, gay and lesbian people and the poor," said Scott Greenwood, a Cincinnati civil rights lawyer. "These were targeted groups."

Jones said he does not think that Reagan was a mean or bad person, but he believes the former president was a product of a time when it was all right to treat minorities differently from everyone else.

He said Reagan's early embrace of "states' rights" - seen by many blacks as code for segregation - set the tone for his presidency.

"The policies he pressed had a very negative effect on the aspirations of black Americans," Jones said.

And blacks made their displeasure known at the polls in 1984 when 91 percent voted against him, even as the rest of the nation gave him an unprecedented landslide victory.

Reagan's critics say opposition to the former president was based on harsh economic realities: high poverty rates and double-digit black unemployment rates throughout his presidency.

But conservatives say that's not the whole story. They argue that more black-owned businesses were created, that a black middle class began to emerge and that Reagan was the president who made Martin Luther King Day a national holiday.

And though the black unemployment rate remained more than twice that of whites, the rate for African-Americans did fall under Reagan, from 15.6 to 11.4 percent.

"The Reagan theme that touched me was, 'big government get out of the way,' " said Melba Marsh, a Republican Common Pleas judge in Hamilton County. "We're now looking at businesses flourishing in the black community and we're looking at a successful middle class coming of age."

Marsh, who is African-American, said Reagan's personal touch should not be forgotten, either. She still remembers a campaign stop here when she shouted a greeting and he reached over several people to shake her hand.

"I really felt a sense of hope and optimism from him," she said.

Even his critics say they can appreciate the appeal of Reagan the man, but in their view, that doesn't make his policies any less destructive or divisive. They say many of those policies endure because of Reagan's strong influence on the federal judiciary - he appointed well over 200 judges - and on President Bush's policies today.

"I personally kind of liked the man," said Damon Lynch, a civil rights activist in Cincinnati. "But he ushered in a new conservatism that is still being felt today, a turning back of some hard-fought victories on civil rights."

Jones said he's discouraged that so many Americans now are celebrating Reagan's legacy, an indication that he is at least as popular now as when he was president.

He said the high praise suggests that the people who believe they were left out of Reagan's America still are not embraced by today's America.

"When people see the gushing that's taking place," Jones said, "they think maybe we haven't come as far as we thought."


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Today's stories:
Memories wiped away, bit by bit
Tributes abound on Fountain Square
Area folks feel drawn to Capitol to pay tribute
'Reagan Revolution' wasn't for all
Daughter, dad make trip to say goodbye to 'hero'
Notion: Name VOA park after Reagan