President Nixon's broken promise to 'bring the American people together'.

Author:Peretz, Pauline
Position::Essay
 
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In order to ensure the best possible conditions to win the next presidential election, the Republican Party is currently trying to make inroads with minority voters, especially Latinos, as recommended by the Republican National Committee (RNC) report "Growth and Opportunity Project" released in March 2013. (1) This strategy can be seen as a legacy of President Richard Nixon, who introduced a major rupture in the history of the Republican Party in 1969, when he tried to capture minority votes, thus putting an end to the party's ignorance of ethnoracial electoral politics. Indeed, from the New Deal onward, ethnic and black votes were close to being a monopoly of the Democrats at the federal level. Since World War II especially, the latter had become associated with policies favoring equal rights and efforts to halt historical discriminations against blacks. During this period, courting ethnic and black votes did not make much sense for the Republicans. But this near monopoly was threatened when, once in office in 1968, the narrowly elected President Nixon aspired to dismantle the New Deal coalition in order to secure his reelection four years later. To do so, he played the game of racial and ethnic politicking, understood in this article as the use of race and ethnicity as wedge issues, in order to garner the votes of one or several groups. This ambition was timely: the civil rights movement had emulated the mobilization of ethnic groups, particularly that of working class whites of eastern and southern European origins (commonly designated as "white ethnics"), and of Latinos, two groups that were reconsidering their political loyalty. In the eyes of Nixon's advisors, the time was ripe to exploit the loosening of ethnoracial groups' ties to the Democratic Party.

To create a wedge between ethnoracial groups and the Democratic Party, Nixon needed to make gestures that demonstrated his understanding of the increasing political significance of ethnoracial identities and demands. But the Republican president never advocated equal opportunities for all. One of the key reasons was that his ethnoracial policy could not be decoupled from his successive electoral appeals--Nixon first courted southern whites, then blacks, white ethnics, and later Latinos. In order to implement this electoral strategy, Nixon looked for political measures that would have the lowest possible cost, politically and electorally speaking. When dealing with minority demands for equal rights, equal conditions, or political recognition, politicians can respond in two ways: they can decide to adopt a liberal strategy of general antidiscrimination and affirmative action policy that can be applied to any group seen as suffering from current and historical discriminations; or they can favor a more particularistic, group-specific strategy that responds to demands for policies whose realization only benefits a particular ethnoracial group. In this article, I intend to show that Nixon systematically favored group-targeted measures over universalistic policies without any concern for their effects on intergroup relations. I will show that, in an already tense context of interethnic and interracial conflicts, he adopted an antagonistic approach of ethnic and racial politicking in full cognition of its explosive potential. Indeed, his very conception of ethnic and racial politics seems to have been rooted in an understanding of ethnoracial relations as rivalry. Therefore, Nixon buried his pledge to reunite the nation and acted as a great racial and ethnic divider.

Ethnic and racial polarization is usually seen as the result of group competition or power contests over material, political, and symbolic benefits (such as local patronage, education, control of specific labor markets, or housing) by sociologists and political scientists mostly looking at urban settings (Jennings 1994; McClain 2006; McClain and Stewart 2010; Sonenshein 1993), as well as by historians concentrating on specific cities or neighborhoods (Bayor 1978; Pritchett 2003; Rieder 1985). These studies often explain the state of ethnoracial relations by such factors as the history of the groups' settlement in the city and local politics (the nature of electoral districting, the presence of local machines or not, the conditions of political incorporation). In doing so, they often show how local elites feed competition between groups in order to secure control on local politics, through such measures as redistricting, reapportionment, or appointments to city commissions. This article shifts the study of ethnoracial relations to the federal level. It looks at how Nixon's targeting of these groups, whether in a positive (extension of a right) or negative (repeal of an advantage) way, affected the relations among them by studying closely the relations the Nixon White House developed with racial and ethnic leaders.

This article uses the term "ethnoracial" to characterize groups that have historically been dominated or discriminated on the bases of their race, immigrant status as well as culture, and that claimed political recognition at the end of the 1960s. This term encompasses all the groups I examine in this article (blacks, white ethnics, and Latinos), and takes into account issues of racial inequality as well as differences due to diverse immigrant backgrounds. The term also bridges the divide between the scholarship that addresses race, "seen as homogeneous, fixed and hierarchical on the one hand" and scholarship focusing on immigration and ethnicity "tied to culture, plurality, malleability, and equality" on the other hand (Hattam 2007, 1-2)). Finally, it avoids the conflation of race into ethnicity as well as the embrace of ethnicity as the preferred language of difference (Hattam 2007; Sabbagh 2010). Despite the fact that "minority" was the preferred term of the Nixon administration in conformity with the terminology used by the agencies created to advance civil rights, I chose the term "ethnoracial group" to emphasize Nixon's essentialist conception rather than the demographic size or the opposition to the dominant white Anglo-Saxon group.

A "Possible Violent Scenario"

The series of riots that plagued American cities in the second half of the 1960s shocked most Americans. In 1968, the Kerner Commission report concluded that the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal" (4). At the end of the 1960s, the long hot summers were already a memory of the past, but the appeal of separatism and radicalism remained strong among some blacks. Also, conflicts between blacks and whites were now stimulated anew by their increasing social interaction and physical proximity, made possible by the migration of four million blacks to northern and western cities since World War II, and more recently by the desegregation and busing measures adopted under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Blacks and whites were now competing for jobs, space, community control, housing, geographic boundaries, as well as local political power. In this competition, blacks and whites were clearly unequal competitors for social and economic advantages (Steinberg 1981, 221). However, inner city whites were under the impression that they were experiencing a social downgrading and that what they had earned through their hard work--their job, their house--was threatened by the newcomers. Tensions fed on the feeling that the correction of past discriminations against blacks was realized at the expense of other groups, as shown by the school controversy that opposed blacks and Jews in Ocean Hill-Brownsville (New York) (Podair 2002) or, later, the backlash that Jews and Italians orchestrated against the arrival of black residents in Canarsie, in Brooklyn, New York (Rieder 1985). Conflicts also grew from a political emulation that led other groups than blacks, especially white ethnics, to claim reparations for correction of discriminations.

At the time of Nixon's election, policy makers at both the national and local levels developed an acute awareness of the risk posed by latent ethnoracial rivalries. The staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Howard A. Glickstein, remarked at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights Oversights in August 1971 that "the increasing racial polarization of our urban areas (was) emerging as the major civil rights issue of the 70s." (2) Some cities created commissions to appease tensions by monitoring and correcting discriminations. Such was the case in New York with the Commission on Human Rights, later transformed into the Commission on Intergroup Relations.

Despite the cessation of urban riots, Nixon himself showed some concern about the tensions that continued to escalate between ethnoracial groups. He described himself in his memoirs, written in 1978, as having been conscious of this possible escalation when he entered the White House: "When I came into office in 1969 ... Black Americans appeared to be more dissatisfied with their lot ... than they were at the beginning [of the 1960s], and tensions between Black and White had never been higher" (Nixon 1978, 435). His advisors were even more aware than him of the necessity to prevent the multiplication and intensification of ethnic conflicts--what Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant for urban affairs, called a "possible violent scenario" characterized by a "steady escalation of Black-White hatred, fear and terrorism." In his October 1969 memo to the president, he wrote,

The growing antagonism between White and Black will have to begin to recede. At year's end the Administration will have succeeded in establishing bona fides with Black America, while reassuring White America, especially the White working class, that an Administration is an office, which understands that gains for Blacks must not automatically be translated into losses for Whites ... The great need is for reassurance...

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