Point of View Columns

Richard Nixon – Worse Than We Thought

Of the forty-four men who have been President of the United States, there have been many who have been outright hostile to the interests and well-being of Americans of African descent. But Richard M. Nixon, although known for his consideration of the policy of the “benign neglect” of black people, has not been considered to be one of the worst presidents on the issue of race. Now it is clear that we need to rethink our thinking.

It is, of course, all a matter of perspective. After all, we must consider Nixon in comparison to some of the other 43 presidents. After all, eight of the first ten presidents owned slaves and Rutherford B. Hayes stood by and let the Ku Klux Klan ravage black people in the South. And it should not be forgotten that Woodrow Wilson not only segregated the federal civil service but he also hosted the world premiere of the incredibly racist film, “Birth of a Nation”.

But now a voice from the grave of John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s Domestic Policy Advisor, gives us a very clear picture of how vile and villainous the Nixon Administration was on the issue of race. In a 1994 interview with journalist Dan Baum that is now published in the current issue of Harper’s magazine, Ehrlichman is quoted as saying that black people were seen as enemies of the Nixon White House. He goes on to say:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In this quote, Ehrlichman sounds like an advisor to the Third Reich instead of the President of the United States. As a result of this mindset, the Nixon Administration began the so-called War on Drugs, which has been termed by many, a War on Black America. As Professor Michelle Alexander has pointed out in “The New Jim Crow”, the War on Drugs and the commitment to racially biased massed incarceration has eviscerated black communities in this country for over forty years. Trillions of dollars have been wasted and millions of lives have been ruined in the name of a policy that was born out of racial hatred and bigotry.

The sad part of this miserable story is that Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush propagated and even doubled down on this dark plot to demean and diminish black America. And when black critics of the Obama Administration get ready to hurl more epithets against the first black President of the United States, they should pause and remember that he is the first and only President of the United States to initiate the process of decriminalizing federal drug laws while seriously attempting to end the scourge of mass incarceration – a Nixonian legacy that has outlived its authors as it continues to torment black men and women and children to this day.

The takeaway of this miserable story is not simply that the War on Drugs was born of malicious racial policies. The real takeaway is that five presidents, the United States Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party continued and propagated this awful “War”. And even after the casualties –  black Americans and their families and their communities-  piled up in cities across this nation the entire governmental apparatus of this country supported it.

We are now witness to fresh thinking finally beginning to take hold as the “War” threatens to bankrupt states and cities financially. But even now, it seems that we are decades away from the stench of Nixon’s War on Black America being cleansed from this country.

And is not Watergate or Cointelpro or the “Enemies Lists” that are the worst part of that stained and battered Richard Milhous Nixon legacy, it is the systematic and systemic War on Black America.

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