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Poisonous Rhetoric, Then and Now

John Ehrlichman talks with reporters following his conviction in the Watergate scandal on January 1, 1975, in Washington, D.C.

After a career spent cataloguing and commenting on the American political scene—nearly 30 years as a newspaper journalist and, more recently, as a public policy observer—I am rarely personally offended by anything that politicians say or do. But last week, two news stories exposed a level of political mendacity that set my heart racing and blood boiling.

Even now, my anger has yet to abate after reading journalist Dan Baum’s April cover story in Harper’s Magazine. In that article, Baum quoted John Ehrlichman—a former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a year and half prison sentence for his role in the Watergate scandal—as saying the Nixon administration’s war on drugs campaign was deliberately designed to target black Americans.

According to the story, in 1994, Ehrlichman told Baum that—as Nixon’s chief domestic advisor—he was aware that the administration was aiming to vilify black Americans by focusing the war on drugs in black communities. As Baum recalled:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” [Ehrlichman] asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, 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 the second maddening story of the week, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivered a speech to a room full of interns in which he offered a mea culpa for his repeated comments vilifying poor people—or, as Ryan put it:

There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.

These two stories, ostensibly unrelated, illustrate in bold strokes why the United States continues to suffer from a so-called race problem. And they help explain why so many people deny the root causes of contemporary and systemic racism—or even that racism exists at all.

Indeed, for a great number of Americans, the idea of racism is an objectionable act: sending out offensive fliers on college campuses or firing an employee based on her race. Those are simple, easy-to-see cases. And though they are highly offensive to fair-minded people, they have also become relatively rare. But the much more common yet harder-to-define forms of racism are invisibly embedded in our national culture, so subtly ingrained as to go unnoticed—to the extent that anyone who points them out is cast as a societal outlier or, worse, labeled a reverse racist for noticing what is occurring around them.

And that is why I am so outraged by what Erhlichman—who died in 1999—is reported to have said and done; ditto for Speaker Ryan’s too-late-for-me apologia. By spreading lies about black and economically distressed Americans, these public officials infected our national culture with vile catchphrases, imagery, and attitudes that allowed others to propose, support, and enact policies with real and damaging consequences.

This is how systemic racism lives, breeds, and thrives.

To be specific, Nixon’s war on drugs pushed such measures as mandatory minimum sentencing laws; no-knock raid warrants; and more harsh law enforcement measures that were used disproportionately against black Americans. And the makers versus takers rhetoric that Speaker Ryan popularized as a Tea Party darling during his 2012 vice presidential campaign is still a part of the conservative rants.

As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson pointed out, Speaker Ryan’s sweet words are not matched by sweeter policy prescriptions. “… [H]is penance has not been matched by a broader effort to change the substance beneath the words,” Thompson wrote in reaction to Ryan’s speech. “For years, he has put forth a budget that would provide the largest tax cuts in history for the wealthy while gutting income support and health care assistance for the middle-class and poor.”

There really is something odious and damaging to the country’s culture when conservative leaders advance their careers and policies by denigrating black and poor people. Worse of all, the conflation of racism and privilege allows them to do so without bearing an appropriate reputational penalty or diminishing their standing in society.

Politics ain’t beanbag. I do understand how the game is played—which is to say that it usually does not bother me to hear political leaders pander to supportive audiences. But sometimes their hurtful words are more than sounds in the air. Sometimes they lie, and these lies cling to our culture, changing the way common folk think and react. Sometimes they knowingly harm wide swaths of our citizenry. That’s outrageously maddening and beyond the pale of politics that I can stomach.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.