The New Jim Crow Characters: Richard Nixon

Michelle Alexander

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was the thirty-seventh president of the United States. During his presidential campaign, Nixon, a Republican, famously pursued a “Southern Strategy” that was intended to siphon off Southern voters who traditionally supported the Democratic party. Knowing that many white Southerners disapproved of the Democratic party’s increasing support for Civil Rights and desegregation, Nixon campaigned directly to this population. By framing the Civil Rights Movement as a breakdown of law and order, Nixon was able to successfully appeal to the racial resentments of many poor and working-class whites.

Throughout the campaign, Nixon gave numerous speeches revolving around law and order—a coded way of critiquing the Civil Rights protests. His election to the White House marked a drastic shift in the American political map, and Alexander points out that several of Nixon’s political advisers later openly acknowledged that the “Southern Strategy” was designed to appeal to those who held anti-black sentiments. Once in office, Nixon officially declared a “War on Drugs,” which Alexander identifies as the beginning of America’s mass incarceration epidemic.

In 1974, Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal. Despite his controversial political legacy, Nixon successfully laid the ground for a revival of the conservative movement. Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, adopted Nixon’s use of coded racial rhetoric to fuel public hysteria over crack—in fact, Alexander argues that Reagan first brought up the “crack epidemic” at a time when crack cocaine usage was actually fairly low. Like Nixon’s racially charged calls for “law and order,” the Reagan administration promoted racial stereotypes about urban “crack whores” and “crack babies,” surreptitiously making a connection between drug crime and the African American community. Promising to get tough on drugs, Reagan pumped cash and resources into law enforcement efforts, transforming Nixon’s War on Drugs from “an ambitious federal policy to an actual war.”