- Winning While Losing: Civil Rights, the Conservative Movement, and the Presidency from Nixon to Obama ed. by Kenneth Osgood and Derrick E. White
A little more than four decades separate the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008. Not surprisingly, historians and social scientists perceive these two events as bookends of substantial changes in civil rights and presidential politics. One result of that perception is this book – a collection of essays that were first presented at the Alan B. Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency held at Florida Atlantic University in 2009.
The intriguing title of the volume–Winning While Losing–under-scores its theme: that the contours of progress in civil rights over the past generation have been uneven. With a perspective of hindsight, the presenters articulate how the nation has moved forward and back depending on the temper of the times and the particular man in the White House. It is interesting to note that planning for the symposium was begun well before Barack Obama was even a contender for the Democratic nomination. “His victory in the primary and subsequent presidential election to the presidency,” note the volume editors, “came as a surprise to the conference participants, who now found themselves discussing the connection between race and the presidency just weeks after the inauguration of the country’s first black president. It was a remarkable coincidence.”(ix)
So the central question of the conference and the chapters in this book is: How have our recent presidents from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush shaped race relation in the United States? “This new era,” conclude the volume editors, “was shaped less by liberal activism than by the broader conservative turn in the American electorate, a mood that constrained the ability of civil rights activists to advance their agenda through public policy.”(x) This is the paradox of progress. The overt and public racism of the Jim Crow era was swept away in the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, and there [End Page 278] was no denying the transformative importance of electing a man of color to the presidency.
But this “progress” if that is the best word to use – has come at a price. Even if public discrimination is gone, there is little indication that the nation is now color blind. One is reminded of a comment by the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall who was once asked if discrimination was at an end. “In all my life,” he responded cryptically, “I never had to put my hand in front of my face to know the color of my skin.”
Winning While Losing is divided into eight chapters arranged in chronological order. A useful introductory essay is followed by chapters on Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The next two chapters concentrate on Ronald Reagan and his ambivalent attitude toward civil rights in general and the prosecution of civil rights crimes in particular. For some unstated reasons, there are no chapters on Gerald R. Ford or George H.W. Bush. Civil rights policy in the Clinton years is dismissed as being “in Reagan’s shadow.”
The last three chapters trace the unusual contours of race relations beginning with the confrontational and controversial election of 2000 and the presidency of George W. Bush. Although the volume does include a chapter on Obama, it was written before his presidency had unfolded. It is necessarily a chapter full of hope and speculation.
There are five common threads that the contributors use to tie the chapters together into a whole cloth. First, each of the authors highlights the ways that racial and civil rights issues fuse with political ideologies in the years since the King assassination. Second, the contributors acknowledge that presidential politics was complicated by a movement across party lines that defied labels. Third, it is evident in all of the chapters that pragmatism...