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Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Dean J. Kotlowski

"Rather than a means for rehabilitation," Kotlowski concludes, Nixon's "civil rights policy offers a vista on his multifarious persona." Despite that claim, this account serves as a de facto apologia for Nixon's record, elevating his accomplishments … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Dean J. Kotlowski
Publisher: Harvard University Press
1 review about Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle,...

A surprising side of Nixon you do not know!

  • Aug 1, 2007
Read this for graduate American history course.
In Nixon's Civil Right's, the author enumerates the many positive results of the President Richard Nixon's civil rights policy agenda. Although not well publicized in the media or histories of the Nixon era, his accomplishments were numerous and remain a part of United States government institutions and the civil rights lexicon of our contemporary times. When discussing prior histories on Nixon's civil right policy, the author points out the domination of Nixon's "southern strategy" to attract white southerners, his anti-busing stance in most Nixon histories and the paucity of discussion of his creation of an institutionalized bureaucracy to advance the cause of civil rights. Nixon appreciated how his own access to opportunity to become a "self-made man" helped him transcend his own socio-economic background. Consequently, he advocated equal opportunity for Blacks in spite of his own misgivings about their true equality to whites.

Since the author is arguing a positive viewpoint that Nixon had numerous accomplishments in advancing civil rights, a reasonable suspicion could develop that he was a defender or supporter of Nixon. Even so, the volume of objective evidence delineated by the author of Nixon's good deeds on civil rights makes this suspicion appear as an oversimplification of a complex American public figure.

The author espoused the following significant theme. The president's complex handling of civil rights stemmed from his attempt to accommodate various social forces, his own conscience, life experience and the exigencies of populist politics. The opposing social forces included the battle over school segregation in the South and frustration in the urban areas of the North over economic inequality.

Another significant theme in the book was his policy's consistency with the "moderate Republicanism" ideology of selective use of government power to facilitate equal-opportunity for social mobility. Significantly, the author argued that this "moderation" was recognized by Nixon as needed in order to unify the GOP's liberal and Conservative wings.

Political expediency was considered by the author to be Nixon's primary consideration and he pursued multiple goals in order to gain the most votes for the least amount of commitments. His language emphasized the working poor and taxpayers and minorities were tepidly sought after for votes. Nixon believed that he would never win over a majority of Blacks and his efforts to win their votes reflected this belief. Nixon thought his efforts were better spent towards Catholic Italians and Hispanics with conservative proclivities. The Democrats controlled the Congress. Therefore, Nixon chose a blend of liberalism and conservatism that he thought would have broad appeal with the electorate. "By basing his appeals on token gestures and public relations, the president was free to pursue conservative and moderate voters." (p. 16)

In his 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon reaffirmed his belief in the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown versus Board decision. He thought desegregation was the right course of action but he recognized this position did not help him politically. Consequently, as policies began to be debated about how to proceed towards school desegregation, he postulated that busing should not be used to force integration of public schools. He also believed Blacks should be allowed to purchase homes wherever they chose but he avoided policies that would force the races together. Nevertheless, the book recalled Nixon's dissonance with segregation in the South while he was at Duke University. As a proponent of equal opportunity, he sought for affirmative action with hiring goals for minorities as a way to enhance Black economic mobility.

An impressive articulation of the complexity of the Nixon philosophy follows: "While cultivating white conservative white southerners and blue collar ethnic voters, Nixonians paradoxically tackled welfare reform, desegregated schools, and developed affirmative action programs for the building trades."(p.21)

President Nixon's civil rights policies did not end with Blacks. It was also extended towards Native Americans and women. Nixon's methodology for civil rights reform was to seek bureaucratized and job-oriented remedies that achieved more access to the opportunity for upward mobility.

It was also interesting to see how activist many of the civil rights and other programs Nixon supported were. As vice president, he chaired a committee to prohibit discrimination by companies receiving government contracts. This action drew praise from Martin Luther King and the two leaders had a cordial relationship for a limited time. "From 1957 to 1968 he supported every major civil rights law passed by Congress".(p.24) In 1966, he backed cost of living increases for Social Security recipients.

Affirmative action was a significant legacy of the Nixon presidency and is still in effect in our universities and workplaces. Nixon used affirmative action address the grievances that resulted in the urban rioting of the late 1960' s. Racial discrimination in the construction trades was a glaring problem in the 1960's. Blacks picketed
Philadelphia's white dominated building trade unions. The unions wanted to limit membership in order to keep the labor supply tight and sustain good wage rates. The Nixon Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Agency investigated the rapid increase in the cost of housing in 1969. The HUD report concluded that racial discrimination was contributing to labor shortages and increasing the cost of housing. This factor and the urban unrest led Nixon to pursue affirmative action by asking for hiring goals for Blacks of 5 to 9 percent. A protest by conservatives in both political parties ensued. These conservatives said that such a scheme amounted to a quota system which violated the Civil Acts Right of 1964. Labor Secretary George P. Schultz justified the scheme saying that the quota was zero prior to the administration's initiative. In late 1969, a modified version of the Philadelphia Plan was approved by Congress that set hiring goals, not quotas, for companies that accepted federal contracts.

The politics of labor unions in this instance provides an example for the author of how "Nixon's choice of civil rights remedies shifted with the prevailing winds." (p.1 09) Critics charged that he was trying to divide the Democratic constituency by facing off the unions against proponents of civil rights for Blacks. Nixon was politically uncomfortable with the Philadelphia Plan and as he looked towards re-election, his enthusiasm for it waned. He recognized he was going to need labor unions in order to win re-election. Therefore, his federal department appointees engaged in a measured approach on enforcement.

Nixon was a political creature who sought after civil rights because he thought it was the right thing to do but also recognized it would score voting gains among civil rights proponents. He also openly stated to his advisors that he recognized that, as an overall policy, pursuing civil rights would hurt him politically. Consequently, he found hot button issues like busing that would gamer votes from those opposed to integration. His sincerity on civil rights can be questioned since he may have done just enough to maximize his votes at the littlest cost, as the author has postulated. The author certainly discusses lots of evidence that, as the cost for a given civil rights position became higher, more lucid and imminent as election day approached, Nixon pedaled the breaks on the civil rights bus. This was true for the 1972 election when he voiced his opposition to school busing. Numerous people believe that good leadership entails a willingness to risk full rebuke and "lose it all" for the sake of a just cause. The problem with this notion is, you can't lead if you are run out of office. The slow process of a just conclusion for our nation's civil rights issue is a glaring example of the exigencies of our nation's political system. A fair generalization is; politicians are dragged kicking and screaming to do the just thing and only when they see the political tide turning, that the benefits of support exceed the costs, do they give way.

Other Employment programs developed by Nixon included the Equal Employment Act (EEA) of 1972. This act allowed individuals to sue universities and employers suspected of bias. The EEA embodied Nixon's desire to see equal opportunity enforced though the courts and not the "cease and desist" measures endorsed by his own head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), William H. Brown III and liberals in Congress. The author cited evidence that the EEA and enforcement through litigation approach of the EEOC led to opening private industry to minorities and women. The additional opening of universities for these same groups led to more minorities and women being qualified for management and technical positions in the government and private industry.

The author provides an interesting analysis of the genesis of the growth of opposition to affirmative action. In the latter part of the 1970's, economic recessions had undermined white male job security and they sought assurances that gains for women and minorities would not come at their expense. The author stated that presidents Nixon and Carter failed to provide this assurance and this explains the sense of relief experienced by those that supported the 1978 Supreme Court's decision in Regents of California versus Bakke which said the quota system DCAL-Davis used was unconstitutional.

Nixon's efforts to promote civil rights centered upon opening up new opportunities for economic advancement through the educational system and organizations that employed a high quantity of individuals such as the federal government. He wanted Blacks to become better educated and thus better qualified for white collar jobs. Therefore, he opened up public colleges for blacks and he helped all-Black schools by advocating financial aid for these schools. He wanted capital formation to be facilitated by government programs so Blacks could form new businesses and instituted or enhanced federal business loan programs. He wanted college students to trade in violent protest for the right to vote, so he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1970 giving eighteen year olds the
right to vote. He also fought to strengthen self government for Native Americans and ameliorate living conditions on the reservations. For women, Nixon sidestepped the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) but advocated affirmative action and the elimination of gender bias in the workplace.

President Nixon's philosophy of opening up opportunity as the conduit through which civil rights for minorities and women would be enhanced resonated with the middle-class constituency that reelected him in 1972. The author concludes that, with a Democratic Congress relentlessly reminding him of the people's desire for civil rights reforms within American society, he surprised both critics and supporters with his bold initiatives. Bold initiatives such as self-determination for Native Americans and aid to Black colleges and businesses. Although Nixon was very pessimistic about his policies ever really manifesting in racial equality, the author stated, "His policies influenced public policy, society and politics even after he left office" (p.26l) and are still with us today.

The author provides an interesting, thought provoking account of how Nixon left a positive mark on America in spite of his disgraceful resignation due to the cover-up of the Watergate scandal. It was a welcome addition to the histories written about the Nixon presidency that add to our understanding of an intelligent, complex and yet, profoundly flawed man. The author concludes, however, that Nixon's record on civil rights will not enhance his place in history, even though, on civil rights, he principally accomplished more than any of his successors. The very complexity of his motives that helped his policy progress; social justice, opportunism and political expediency, would prevent him from being welcomed as the "unanticipated hero" of civil rights. The Vietnam controversy, his paranoia and fundamental dishonesty remain the primary focus of Nixon's historic legacy.

As a graduate student in philosophy and history, I recommended this book for anyone interested in American history, and Watergate history.

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