Stamped from the Beginning (2016) offers a powerful examination of the modern history of racism in the United States, including where racist ideas originate and how they spread. In particular, the author looks closely at how the presidential campaigns and administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have helped propagate racist thought and had a detrimental impact on America’s black communities.
How can presidential candidates win over racist voters without sounding explicitly racist themselves? This was the question Richard Nixon was mulling over during his election campaign in 1968, and his eventual strategy was to appeal to racists without actually deploying the terms “black people” or “white people.”
More specifically, Nixon’s campaign was hoping to appeal to “nonracist racists.”
These were people who weren’t obvious or aggressive in their racial discrimination, but who did see black neighborhoods as dangerous places to avoid and considered black schools to be inferior to white schools. Most of the time, people with these ideas wouldn’t believe or admit that they had any racists tendencies.
Nixon understood how these people thought and pandered to them in TV ads that featured foreboding music over a montage of violent images captured at civil rights protests. Then came Nixon’s voice, assuring “I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.”
As a private recording revealed, Nixon praised the ad by saying it “hit it right on the nose. It’s all about those damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”
There’s little doubt that Nixon’s tactics were effective. In a 1968 Gallup poll, 81 percent of respondents believed the part of Nixon’s campaign platform that stated, “Law and order has been broken down in the country.” Nixon went on to win the election.
As the United States was about to enter the 1980s, Republicans began using a new approach to appeal to white America’s underlying racism.
In his campaign against incumbent president Gerald Ford to become the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1976, the governor of California and former actor Ronald Reagan used the story of Linda Taylor to link black people receiving welfare to criminal behavior.
Taylor was a black woman from Chicago who earned $8,000 through welfare fraud. It wasn’t a common crime, but Reagan held her up as a typical example and often exaggerated her story by saying, “Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”