Revisiting Krugman on Reagan and Race (UPDATED)

Back in 2007, Krugman wrote a much-talked-about column in which he accused Ronald Reagan of exploiting white racism in his quest for the presidency.  He gave three specific examples of Reagan using “tacit race-baiting.”

One was Reagan’s speech at a County fair in Mississippi where, he says, Reagan “declared his support for states’ rights — which everyone took to be a coded declaration of support for segregationist sentiments.”  This event has been discussed in great detail, including on this blog, but suffice to say that this is at best an exaggeration; contemporary coverage of the event, while noting the controversial venue (near where three civil rights workers were murdered), does not support the idea that the audience thought Reagan was endorsing segregation.  As I wrote previously, “Reporters at the time reported that the audience didn’t perceive that Reagan was referring to race , e.g, the NY Times in October wrote, “Although Mr. Reagan did not elaborate on that occasion, he later explained that he was referring to his proposal to shift certain taxing powers and social programs such as welfare from the Federal to the state level. Most of those at the rally apparently regarded the statement as having been made in that context.”   An audio tape of the event (discovered after Krugman’s column appeared) further debunks Krugman’s take, showing that Reagan only mentioned states’ rights once in a context that had nothing to do with race, and the speech itself was about economic policy and never mentioned race.

A second example that Krugman gave was that “Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.”  It turns out, however, as a wonderful investigative report in Slate shows, that the story was not bogus, the welfare fraud in question was not minor, the welfare recipient in question really did drive a Cadillac, and the unwillingness of Chicago officials to aggressively prosecute the fraud in question likely inhibited the revelation of even more serious crimes.

This doesn’t exonerate Reagan of Krugman’s charges, but it does tell us something about Krugman–among other things, that he asserts with confidence historical “facts” based on a tendentious interpretation of events that fits his own worldview, without bothering to use the considerable resources at his disposable to investigate the truthfulness of what he writes.

UPDATE: Two points.  First, why is this worthy of a blog post?  Largely because I had at one time believed myths about both Reagan’s Mississippi speech and his welfare fraud allusions.  I don’t like being taken in, and, rightly or wrongly, it’s Krugman whom I most associate with spreading both myths.  Second, several commenters have responded by insisting that regardless of Krugman’s specific allegations, Reagan did in fact engage in “tacit race-baiting” for political advantage, and that included the offhand reference to states’ rights in Mississippi and his emphasis on welfare fraud. That’s a legitimate argument, but it’s a much bolder (albeit more honest) one than Krugman’s argument that relies on Reagan making a direct if coded pro-segregation appeal in Mississippi and inventing a Cadillac-driving welfare fraudster almost out of whole cloth.

FURTHER UPDATE: FWIW, the actual text of Reagan’s Mississippi speech is interesting. For one thing, Reagan’s portrayal of welfare recipients is quite different from what you might expect if you swallow Krugman’s line wholeheartedly: “Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don’t believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they’re trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.” I’m not claiming that Reagan (who after all was a politician) didn’t take advantage of racially divisive issues when the opportunity arose. But having read “mainstream” portrayals of Reagan like Krugman’s I expected something more like “cadillac-driving welfare queens” and a lot less like “the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future.”

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