Last week, in a graduation ceremony mysteriously underplayed by the white press, George W. Bush earned his master's degree from the Ronald Reagan Institute of Race Policy and Management.
Reagan established the institute in 1980 by kicking off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. The Neshoba County Fair for decades had been the legendary gathering spot of segregationists and near the site of the grisly murders of three civil rights workers.
Reagan took the microphone and, to the roar of thousands of white fairgoers, said, ''I believe in states' rights.'' Anyone who knows Southern race policy knows that saying ''states' rights'' is like waving a Confederate flag, telling racists they can do whatever they want to black folks.
Reagan was never hounded by the press as to how he could make such a statement and expect to be elected as president. Reagan's handlers slyly scheduled a speech two days later before the Urban League. At the Urban League speech, Reagan said:
''For too many people, conservative has come to mean antipoor, antiblack, and antidisadvantaged. Perhaps some of you question whether a conservative really feels sympathy and compassion for the victims of social and economic misfortune and of racial discrimination.... If you think of me as the caricatured conservative, then I ask you to listen carefully and maybe you'll be surprised by our broad areas of agreement.''
History shows that the real Reagan was the one who spoke at the Neshoba County Fair and not the one at the Urban League. His presidency quickly became the most antipoor, antiblack, and antidisadvantaged in the latter half of the 20th century.
Now, 20 years later, here comes George W. Bush. Stung by his defeat in the New Hampshire primary, Bush needed a trump card in the South Carolina Republican primary. This was a problem, since he and John McCain are running neck-and-redneck on issues dear to racists. Both have chickened out on saying it is time to stop flying the Confederate flag over the state capitol.
Bush may have found his ace. He kicked off his homestretch drive in South Carolina by speaking at Bob Jones University. Bob Jones represents one of Reagan's early signs of being antiblack. Reagan fought to revoke the Internal Revenue Service's authority to deny charitable tax exemptions to the school. The denial was over the school's ban on interracial dating.
The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, rebuked Reagan, saying schools that practice racial segregation can indeed be denied tax exemptions. Reagan would later appoint the lone dissenter, William Rehnquist, to chief justice.
Bob Jones University still bans interracial dating. George W.'s brother Jeb, the Florida governor who is married to a Latina, could not have graduated. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has a white wife and who was appointed by George W.'s father, could not have graduated.
Bob Jones also practices homophobia. Two years ago, when a gay, 60-year-old alum asked if he could come back to visit the school, the dean of students wrote back, ''With grief we must tell you that as long as you are living as a homosexual, you, of course, would not be welcome on the campus and would be arrested for trespassing if you did. We take no delight in that action. Our greatest delight would be in your return to the Lord.''
George W. took delight in validating this perverted version of Christianity, telling 6,000 students, almost all white, ''I look forward to publicly defending our conservative philosophy.'' He said he would seek ''compassionate results.'' But compassion could not have been foremost on Bush's mind, since it was only after the speech that he criticized the school's racial policies, not during it and not directly to the students.
His compassion is irrelevant when out of all the colleges in South Carolina, he chose the most racist and homophobic, a venue more discriminatory on paper than even the Neshoba County Fair. Speaking of papers, Bush's appearance was so outrageous newspaper and television reporters should hound him as to how he deserves the White House when he panders to such base thinking.
While many editorials have dutifully questioned the appearance, subsequent news coverage has made little mention of Bob Jones and certainly not enough to suggest this was a deep, permanent stain. Like Reagan and the Urban League, Bush is smart enough to sprinkle just enough pepper in his white sauce, such as photo-ops with black children, to keep the hounds at bay.
Reagan told the Urban League he was not a caricatured conservative. In the end, he became the caricature of modern racism. Today we have Bush, who coined the term ''compassionate conservatism.'' By going to Bob Jones, Bush showed that he will be so compassionate to conservatives he will be every bit as antipoor, antiblack, and antidisadvantaged as Reagan was.
Having earned his masters in Reagan race policy, by speaking at Bob Jones University George W. Bush is well on his way to his PhD: philosopher of demagoguery.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.