by Michael Reagan
Who was the first black president?
Two decades before the election of Barack Obama, novelist Toni Morrison dubbed Bill Clinton “our first black president.” She even said that Clinton was “blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”
Well, I could make an even stronger case for my father, Ronald Reagan, as “our first black president”—but I won’t make that claim. I don’t want to diminish the justifiable pride African-Americans take in having a president who is genetically and culturally black. Our first black president is Barack Obama.
But the past two years have made one thing clear: Ronald Reagan was a far better friend to black Americans than Barack Obama has been. Just compare the Reagan and Obama records. Under Obama, black unemployment rose from 12.6 percent in January 2009 to 16.0 percent today. This means that black unemployment has increased by more than one-fourth since Obama took office.
And the Reagan record? African-American columnist Joseph Perkins has studied the effects of Reaganomics on black America. He found that, after the Reagan tax cuts gained traction, African-American unemployment fell from 19.5 percent in 1983 to 11.4 percent in 1989. Black-owned businesses saw income rise from $12.4 billion in 1982 to $18.1 billion in 1987—an annual average growth rate of 7.9 percent. The black middle class expanded by one-third during the Reagan years, from 3.6 million to 4.8 million.
Before he was elected, in speech after speech, my father said that his economic plan would improve the lives of African-Americans. In a February 1977 CPAC address, he said, “The time has come for Republicans to say to black voters: ‘We offer principles that black Americans can and do support. We believe in jobs, real jobs; we believe in education that is really education; we believe in treating all Americans as individuals and not as stereotypes or voting blocs.’”
My father understood that, while African-Americans may vote Democratic, they live as conservatives. Like all Americans, black Americans want to succeed, they want to be free, and they want to maintain strong families.
During the Great Depression, Dad played football for Coach Mac McKinzie at Eureka College in Illinois. During a game trip to a nearby Illinois college, the team was scheduled to stay in a hotel—but the hotel manager refused to give a room to Dad’s two black teammates, William Franklin “Burgie” Burghardt and Jim Rattan.
Coach McKinzie angrily replied that the entire team would sleep on the bus that night. Dad spoke up and offered an alternative: Why not send Burgie and Jim to the Reagan home in Dixon, just 15 miles away? Dad’s parents, Jack and Nelle Reagan, would welcome his teammates—and the whole team would get a good night’s rest.
In his autobiography, An American Life, Dad recalled, “We went to my house and I rang the bell and Nelle came to the door…’Well, come on in,’ she said…She was absolutely color-blind when it came to racial matters; these fellows were just two of my friends. That was the way she and Jack had always raised my brother and me.”