A Surprise, but not a Success

Though Richard Nixon meant to do the right thing, his actions were at odds with his principles

Few Americans know it, but in fact Richard Nixon, even more than John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, shaped the civil-rights landscape we inhabit today. Nixon broke the will of the South, making school desegregation, long on the books but largely unimplemented, a reality for millions of children black and white. He presided over the nationalization of the Voting Rights Act, extending it beyond the South to cover all Americans—including Latinos. He oversaw the birth of bilingual education and averted the death of historically black colleges. Most important, for better or worse, he and his aides created affirmative action as we know it, turning a vague idea about a leg up at the starting gate into a vast national web of "goals and timetables" at colleges, corporations, and government contracting agencies.

Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy tracks this momentous record in dense, revealing detail. The story begins in the 1950s, with Nixon's early friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., and ends with his last acts in office, as—even under the shadow of Watergate—he made time to meet with black college presidents. Dean J. Kotlowski, an assistant professor of history at Salisbury University, in Maryland, has combed scores of archives and interviewed key participants to construct a fascinating meeting-by-meeting account. This is an authoritative but also readable volume that will surprise just about everyone who picks it up.

Kotlowski is an old-fashioned liberal: he never met a civil-rights remedy—not even busing or municipal set-asides—he didn't like, and Kotlowski doesn't hesitate to be critical of Nixon when he feels that criticism is due. His tribute is thus all the more credible. But unfortunately, his views also obscure his story at times, making it hard for him to enter into Nixon's mind—and harder still for readers ultimately to judge the President's accomplishment.

Though more scholar than storyteller, Kotlowski nevertheless manages to bring Nixon alive; the picture he paints of life in the White House in the late 1960s is telling if not exactly pungent. (The book refers repeatedly, for example, to Nixon's penchant for racist slurs, but we never hear anything even remotely damning.) He captures not just the man in charge but also a host of Nixon's lieutenants: Spiro Agnew, John Ehrlichman, Leonard Garment, George Romney, Maurice Stans, and others. Kotlowski's most important point—not exactly a new idea about Nixon, but probably, as the book claims, the key to his civil-rights policy—has to do with the sympathy, shared by the President and all his aides, for America's proverbial "little guy."

No matter how much power he wielded, Nixon saw himself as a beleaguered outsider, fundamentally at odds with the nation's well-born, well-educated elite. Kotlowski explains,

On racial issues, such resentment saddled Nixon with the same prejudices [as] the middle-class whites whom he claimed to represent. Yet it also instilled an aversion to artificial barriers that prevented people from rising as far as their talents permitted.

The thirty-seventh President may or may not have seen black people as the equals of whites—he probably didn't, according to Kotlowski. But the scrappy contender in him was as strong as, if not stronger than, the bigot, and he was deeply committed to equal opportunity. Of course, like all his beliefs, this impulse was tempered by political calculation: Nixon never did anything without considering how it would look to voters, particularly the southern and white-ethnic voters who increasingly formed the core of the Republican Party. But politic or not, Kotlowski says, Nixon's sympathy for the struggling outsider drove him to try to level the playing field—even when that meant helping blacks at the expense of whites.

Not that Nixon was a conventional civil-rights liberal—far from it. He loathed protest and protesters. He had nothing but scorn for big government and its dependents. And he didn't believe in integration for integration's sake. Not only would such a goal be unpopular and sure to cost him votes if he pushed for it, but he found it antithetical to freedom and, in the long run, trivial. He was willing—even determined—to remove racial barriers, but reluctant to force people to mingle, whether at school or in their neighborhoods. Far more important, in his view, was creating opportunities for black economic development. The Democrats were "token-oriented," he claimed, whereas the Republicans focused on "results."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "African-American Education" (December 1995)
A sampling of Atlantic articles from the 1890s to the 1990s that have discussed the education and empowerment of African-Americans.

What this meant in practice was making jobs available and, even more important, encouraging blacks to start their own businesses—the surest way, Nixon believed, for them to get on the escalator that automatically moves most Americans up into the middle class. It was an old Republican strategy, but also a time-honored black path—the avenue advocated by Booker T. Washington (and scoffed at by W.E.B. Du Bois and other progenitors of the civil-rights movement). By creating black capitalists—with government loans, set-asides, and other means—the Administration hoped to encourage bourgeois values and the spread of black Republicanism. In effect Nixon and his aides sought to create a black America in their own image: a new class of scrappy, small-time entrepreneurs, determined despite the disadvantages of their birth to make it on their own.

It wasn't a bad idea. The question is, where did it go wrong? How did it spawn the rigid, color-coded double standards we know today as racial preferences? If Nixon's Civil Rights will surprise liberals by revealing how much their favored policies owe to Nixon, it will be even more surprising (and disturbing) to racial conservatives—those committed to the goal of racial justice but concerned about conventional liberal means of realizing it. For these readers, Nixon's principles are thrilling but many of his policies are anathema. And Kotlowski, whatever his other strengths, is a poor guide to understanding how the nation might have applied Nixon's insights to achieve a better result.

Take desegregation. Kotlowski claims that Nixon's approach to busing was driven by politics. The President wanted to do the right thing—eliminate legal segregation. But he was also anxious not to alienate conservative voters, particularly white ethnics in the North. So he chose what Kotlowski sees as a clever but cowardly middle course: dismantling de jure segregation in the South while turning a blind eye to the de facto variety in the North. Maybe so. Political calculations surely played some part in the President's thinking. But Kotlowski fails to credit the genuine philosophical distinction Nixon drew between segregation imposed by law and segregation resulting from years of personal choices by both whites and blacks. As a result, the book doesn't do justice to the principled core of his policy. In fact, history has proved Nixon exactly right: when it comes to desegregation, as one aide put it, "the more coercive the techniques ... the more doomed to failure the effort will be." Whatever pressure he had to apply to engineer mixed schooling in the South, Nixon knew intuitively what it has taken the country decades to learn: that the only kind of integration likely to endure is voluntary, and between social equals. Thus his attempt to create a confident black middle class.

From the archives:

"Whatever Happened to Integration?" (February 1997)
A review of Tom Wicker's Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America. By Gerald Early

Still, shrewd as he was on busing, there are questions—hard, complex questions—to be asked about what happened to integration in general on Nixon's watch. Though it was unpopular at the time with civil-rights leaders and other liberals, the President's emphasis on black economic development was a hugely important breakthrough. After all, no one believes today that merely sitting next to whites in school, or even sharing neighborhoods with them, would have been enough to lift blacks out of poverty. The question in retrospect is whether Nixon could have shifted the focus to economic development without encouraging separatism, color-coding, and counting by race—as his policies did.

Nixon's intentions are clear, even in Kotlowski's skewed telling: the President opposed quotas; he disliked the use of coercion to achieve racial justice; he was deeply committed to meritocratic principles (he wanted no part, he said, of policies that were "anti-ability"); and though he didn't like the term, his ultimate vision was integrationist. The last thing he would have sanctioned was a racially balkanized America, divided into angry ethnic communities. Still, more than any other President, it was Nixon who set the country in precisely that direction. He created the first set-asides, fostered quotas in business and at colleges, used all the muscle of the federal government to enforce these divisive preferences, and encouraged rising separatism among not only blacks but also Native Americans. Didn't he see that his actions were at odds with his principles? It never occurs to Kotlowski to ask.

The answer, in part, is that Nixon's team pushed further than he intended with affirmative action, moving beyond voluntary goals to quotas, and ratcheting up government pressure until it amounted to outright compulsion. In other situations, it seems plain today, the President just didn't understand what kind of fire he was playing with. He didn't grasp the depth of alienation that would give separate black institutions—whether colleges, banks, or businesses—such enduring appeal. Nor (though there were plenty of warnings) did he predict how what he called a "little extra start" would in many instances turn into different standards for blacks and whites. In still other cases Nixon all too often simply failed to follow through. Easily offended by the black leaders he tried to work with, distracted by vote-getting and then by Watergate, in truth, he never saw race relations as a priority. And as a result, he failed to ride herd on many of his own initiatives—or to stop them when they fell afoul of his beliefs.

In the end, then, the story of Nixon and race is, like so much else in Nixon's history, a tragic story. He meant well—much better than most people, then or now, have given him credit for. His iconoclastic ideas were sometimes brilliant and far ahead of their time. But ultimately it's hard to count his civil-rights policy a success. Yes, he transformed the way we see the problem: the economic, results-oriented approach he fashioned reigns supreme even today. But the endless preferences it engendered were hardly true to his principles—and arguably have undermined racial progress. Finally, it's no accident that most readers will be surprised by the news in this volume. Whatever Nixon accomplished in behalf of blacks, he had no idea how to communicate his vision or use the bully pulpit for moral leadership on race issues. Kotlowski doesn't get it, but this is a deeply sad book: a story of so much promise and such good ideas largely run aground.