Senator Obama’s Philadelphia speech has prompted a New York Times article on how politicians talk about race.  It includes an attack on President Nixon:

Race did not disappear entirely from presidential campaigns; it went under cover. It lay buried in code phrases like “crime in the streets,” “states’ rights,” and “welfare mothers.” Michael Klarman, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who specializes in the constitutional history of race, said, “Nixon talks about ‘law and order,’ which is a code term for the urban race riots and rising crime rates. He talks about appointing strict conservatives to the Supreme Court, which is a code term for justices who won’t insist on mandatory busing. And he talks explicitly about how we ought to have ‘local control of schools.’ Without explicitly using the language of race, he is saying whites shouldn’t have to go to school with blacks.”

That paragraph has little connection to historical reality.  Consider:

A review of Public Papers of the Presidents turns up only five instances of the term “states’ rights” during the entire Nixon administration.  And each time, Nixon was clearly talking about federalism, not race.  For instance, he told the National Governors Association:  “For a long time, as all of us know, the phrase `States Rights’ was often used as an escape from responsibility–as a way of avoiding a problem, rather than of meeting a problem. But that time has passed.  I can assure you of this: We are not simply going to tell you the States have a job to do; we are going to help you find the funds, the resources, to do that job well.”

He spoke of “welfare mothers” only three times.  On two of these occasions, he was calling for more federal aid to the poor.  On the third, he was voicing compassion for welfare mothers who fell victim to crime:  “Talking about poor people, I had a call yesterday afternoon from a community leader of the Barry Farm Welfare Mothers. The woman was almost crying, saying that the mothers lose their money. The burglars go in and take furniture and appliances.”

Yes, Nixon did often discuss crime.  He had good reason.  Between 1960 and 1969, the rate of violent crime doubled.  “Crime in the streets” was code for … crime in the streets.  And when he mentioned “strict constructionists,” he was contending that decisions such as Escobedo and Miranda had something to do with the crime wave.  As he said in his 1968 Republican acceptance address:  “Let us always respect, as I do, our courts and those who serve on them. But let us also recognize that some of our courts in their decisions have gone too far in weakening the peace forces as against the criminal forces in this country and we must act to restore that balance.”

As for the policy record, historian Joan Hoff dispatches the myth of Nixon as crypto-segregationist.

 In 1968, for example, sixty-eight percent of all black children in the south attended all-black schools and forty percent of black children in the entire nation attended all-black schools. By the end of 1972, eight percent of southern black children attended all-black schools and a little less than twelve percent nationwide. Comparative budget outlays are equally revealing. President Johnson expended $911 million for civil rights activities, including $75 million for civil rights enforcement during the 1969 fiscal year. For the fiscal year 1973 the Nixon administration’s budget called for $2.6 billion in total civil rights outlays, of which $602 million was earmarked for enforcement through a substantially strengthened Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

If Nixon’s endorsement of local control of education made him a racist, he had plenty of company.  Consider these lines:

  • “We’ve worked hard to support local control of the schools.”
  • “We passed a bill called Goals 2000 to have national world-class standards education for our classes, but have more local control of the schools at the same time.”

The speaker was William Jefferson Clinton.