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Scholars Say “The Butler” Gets Reagan Wrong on Race

A group of distinguished scholars and Reagan historians: our friend Craig Shirley, Kiron K. Skinner, Steven F. The ButlerHayward and Paul Kengor have penned a long essay on President Ronald Reagan and race for The Washington Post. In the essay, they make the case that the movie, “Lee Daniels' The Butler” gets President Reagan wrong on race.

As historians of the 40th president, having written more than a dozen biographies between them, they were troubled by the movie’s portrayal of Reagan’s attitudes toward race. They are especially concerned because many Americans readily accept Hollywood depictions of history as factual, and the film is far from factual.

The historians cite a number of examples of President Reagan’s sensitivity and opposition to racial discrimination, including:

*         “One cold evening in Dixon, Ill., in the early 1930s, a young man known as Dutch Reagan brought home two African American teammates from his Eureka College football team. The team was on the road, and the local hotels had refused the two black players. So Reagan invited them to spend the night and have breakfast with his family.”

*         “In November 1952, in one of his final meetings as president of Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan called upon the entertainment industry to provide greater employment for black actors. His stand went against the times and received national media attention.”

*         “As president, in the same March 1983 speech in which he called the Soviet regime an ‘evil empire,’ Reagan decried ‘the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice” in America. And at a reception for the National Council of Negro Women in July of that year, Reagan declared: “I’ve lived a long time, but I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins’.”

Two incidents in the film were of particular concern to Shirley, Skinner, Hayward and Kengor:

“The butler character (played by Forest Whitaker) is invited by the Reagans to a state dinner, a gracious move wholly typical of the first family. The butler’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) clearly enjoys the evening, but the butler is portrayed as uncomfortable. He feels he’s being used as a political tool, a prop, a token African American. Shortly after this supposed humiliation, he resigns from his White House job.

The scholars document that in reality, Allen felt no such thing. As noted by Religion News Service, “He [Eugene Allen] was especially fond of the Reagans.” A member of Allen’s church recalled that “he often talked about how nice they were to him.” Allen did leave the White House during the Reagan administration, but as Wil Haygood’s profile in The Washington Post mentioned, he received a “sweet note” from the president and a hug from the first lady.

Another questionable moment the historians identified in the film relates to apartheid. “Reagan is shown telling a Republican congresswoman that he will veto any sanctions against South Africa,” in the film. “The lawmaker pleads with the president, insisting that sanctions are the moral course and that Republicans are on board. Reagan refuses to budge, offering no reason for his stubborn support of the racist regime, apparently unsympathetic to black suffering.”

The unfairness of this scene can be demonstrated by any number of historical facts, say the Reagan historians and biographers. “In June 1981, still recovering from an assassination attempt, Reagan sent his closest foreign policy aide, William Clark, on his first official trip; it was to South Africa to express America’s disapproval. An unsmiling Clark told Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to his face that the new president and administration ‘abhorred apartheid.’ Clark walked out on Botha.”

The scholars note that “[W}hile accurate in depicting Reagan’s opposition to sanctions against South Africa, ‘The Butler’ does not explain why he opposed them. Reagan saw sanctions as harmful to the poorest South Africans: millions of blacks living in dire poverty. He also feared that the apartheid regime could be replaced by a Marxist/totalitarian one allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba and that communism would spread throughout the continent. South Africa’s blacks were denied rights under apartheid, but communism would mean no freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, conscience, emigration, travel or even property for anyone. Moreover, in communist nations such as Cambodia and Ethiopia, people had been slaughtered and starved on mass scales. Nearly a dozen nations had become part of the Soviet orbit in the immediate years before Reagan became president. He didn’t want South Africa to undergo the same catastrophe.”

Reagan adopted a policy of “constructive engagement,” seeking to keep South Africa in the anti-Soviet faction while encouraging the country toward black-majority rule — no easy feat according to Reagan’s biographers and historians.

In what these distinguished scholars call “one of his finest speeches,” President Reagan told the United Nations on Sept. 24, 1984, that it was “a moral imperative that South Africa’s racial policies evolve peacefully but decisively toward . . . justice, liberty and human dignity.” Among the successes of Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy was the Angola-Namibia agreement, “which led to the withdrawal of the white South African regime from Namibia and paved the way for that nation’s independence.”

Shirley, Skinner, Hayward and Kengor concluded their essay by saying, “Few in today’s civil rights community will admit it, but the Reagan administration rescued civil rights law from the political and constitutional dead end of quotas and racial redistribution. For example, the Reagan Justice Department applied a higher threshold of proof of discriminatory intent before an employment discrimination case could be brought to court. Previously, companies were presumptively guilty of discrimination if there was a statistical disparity between the racial makeup of that company’s workforce and the demographics of the surrounding labor pool. It was difficult, expensive and cumbersome to challenge this presumption, which is why most companies settled with Justice quota schemes.

The Reagan administration’s civil rights policy was guided by the notion that remedies should be directed toward individual victims of discrimination rather than to classes or racial groups. In some areas of the law, such as employment discrimination cases, civil rights enforcement activity increased relative to its pace under the Carter administration.”

We agree with Craig Shirley, Kiron K. Skinner, Steven F. Hayward and Paul Kengor – films like “The Butler” can be good opportunities for a healthy consideration of our troubled racial history, but not if they persist with inaccurate portrayals. Rather than advancing a flawed portrait of Reagan on race, perhaps “The Butler” can start the process of getting Reagan right on race.

To read the essay, “What ‘The Butler’ gets wrong about Ronald Reagan and race,” in its entirety, click this link or look for it in The Washington Post “Outlook” section on this Sunday, September 1, 2013.

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Fonda as Nancy?

America's most ignominious traitor portraying Nancy Reagan? You couldn't pay me enough money to go see it.

The Butler

I visited So Africa during the Reagan years and several times since then. Reagan got it right about our policies toward So. Africa.

I was so upset by the movie, The Butler, that I decided if people applaud after the movie (as people often do) I would stand and yell, "BOO."
My thought during the movie was "This movie was written by and produced by the DNC.

Disgraceful.

Michael Tucker
AZ