Events

White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community

November 18, 2003 // 11:00pm

Author Ronald Walters, Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland; commentator Darryl Fears, The Washington Post.

Nationalism, according to Ronald Walters, connotes a movement aimed at realigning the state with the nation. It is a reclamation movement based on the assumption that the concerns and interests of the government have fallen out of line with the wishes of the people; an attempt by those who feel newly disempowered to reestablish the primacy of their agenda. Today's white nationalism is a right-wing movement that, far from being the instrument of fringe groups, has taken control of the Supreme Court, the presidency, and the Congress, thereby effectively controlling the American political system. Ironically, its genesis lay in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

During the heyday of that movement, Martin Luther King warned of the possibility of a "white backlash" against the radical and systemic institutional shifts being generated by the civil rights effort. In White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community, Ronald Walters suggests that the Reagan administration was the first one to reflect that backlash. An explicit endorsement of the Reagan campaign by the Ku Klux Klan in 1980 was rejected by the Reagan camp but accepted in 1984, a shift that Walters points to as both a disturbing testament to the state of race relations in America in the mid-1980s and indicative of the shift that took place between 1980 and 1984.

The negative attitude toward the black community fit the larger conservative agenda of reduction of funding for social service programs, the benefits of which were seen as aiding the black community disproportionately. Walters believes that the concomitant rise in the drug trade, violence and accusations of police brutality in the 1980s can be traced to a sense of desperation on the part of the black community at the erosion of social services that had been taken for granted.

Walters draws connections between the shift to conservatism and the 1994 crime statute (Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) and 1996 welfare reform legislation (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ) signed into law by President Clinton. These substantive cutbacks to entitlement programs, he suggests, illustrate the extent to which the neo-conservative agenda permeated the actions of even a liberal administration. This change, however, may itself be undergoing a transformation. Walters views Clinton's "third way" for the Democratic Party as less of a substantive shift than a tactical one, aimed at political victories rather than the achievement of particular public policy goals. Walters has recently observed a shift in the party back to substantive goals and an attempt to return to the roots of post-World War II Democratic ideology.

Finally, Walters argued that, contrary to suggestions made by analysts such as Carol Swain (The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration), the best way to combat the pressures of white nationalism is to create more rather than fewer opportunities for the mobility of racial minorities. To agree to the elimination of affirmative action programs, he says, is to surrender the possibility that this country could ever look different from the way it does now.

Darryl Fears, the race and ethnicity correspondent for the Washington Post, remarked on the importance of Walters' work as a comprehensive intellectual exploration of the way the issue of race has shifted American public opinion to the right. He commented on what he sees as an attempt by white nationalists to create a new black intellectual cohort that will legitimize conservative points of view in the black community, Fears applauded the self-directed and honest perspective espoused in Walters' work. White nationalists have also managed to criminalize the black community in the white American mind, he asserted, thereby exacerbating the punitive nature of the criminal justice system and racializing discussions of public safety.

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

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