Carli Cosenza: Be careful what you wear

Monday, March 26, 2018 - 6:46pm

If you’ve been out and about in the past couple of years, chances are you’ve come across some form of “Reagan-Bush ’84” apparel. Whether it’s a hat, laptop sticker or shirt, the vintage campaign logo has made a revival in mainstream fashion today. The design, which originally was used during then-President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign (and their re-election), has re-emerged today with the idea in mind to “commemorate the dominance of Reagan’s conservatism.” Apparel can be bought just about anywhere, from Amazon to Etsy, where the items are so popular that they are listed among the sites’ best sellers.

The unique aspect of the Reagan-Bush ’84 logo is its appeal not only among today’s conservatives, but its popularity in modern fashion. The design is often worn as a “retro look.” It is described by Amazon sellers as “funny vintage retro style” and “lighthearted, nostalgic parody appeal.” However, I can’t help but wonder if fashion, and consumers, are missing the mark here. Specifically, I wonder if today’s buyers are actually aware of the policies enacted during Reagan’s time as president of the United States. I want to take a moment to address the harmful impact that Reagan’s racially-motivated policies had on the civil rights movement and particularly the lives of Black Americans. Fashion or not, the words that we wear carry a message — are we aware of the racist policies behind the Reagan-Bush ’84 logo? Maybe if more people were, the trend wouldn’t be so popular.

Reagan’s presidency lasted from 1981 until 1989. During his time in office, he was able to launch an attack on the civil rights agenda that should be enough reason alone for modern consumers to stop wearing their support for him. Let’s take a look at some of his most damaging racist policies:

1) Through his rhetoric, Reagan supported racism with remarks that characterized poor, Black women as “welfare queens” who “drove pink Cadillacs.” Not only are these statements seriously offensive, but they are also just plainly, embarrassingly wrong. There are 52 million Americans on welfare, according to a 2012 census bureau study, and many of them are children who can’t even drive a car, let alone a “pink Cadillac.” 

2) President Reagan sought to limit the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. He vetoed reforms on the act, labeling it as “humiliating” to the South.

3) One of Reagan’s campaign promises was for less government intervention. Apparently, he sought to accomplish this goal through racist means. For example, he slashed important programs such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which “provided needed assistance to Black people.”

4) Despite being remembered as the president who made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, Reagan should also be remembered as someone who continuously questioned the integrity of civil rights leaders. He stated, “Sometimes I wonder if they really mean what they say, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice.” Did he really suggest that racially-based prejudice doesn’t exist? That’s not an idea that we should be proudly representing on our clothing today.

5) Reagan tried to allow Bob Jones University, a historically segregated Southern school, to reclaim federal tax credits that had long been denied to “racially discriminatory institutions.” So, his standpoint on institutionalized racism is pretty clear: He not only did nothing to stop it, but actually attempted to perpetuate it, at least in this case.

6) In an effort to silence the voices of Black workers, Reagan ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shelve discrimination claims by Black farmers.

7) And, as if all of the above behavior doesn’t seem troubling enough, Reagan considered apartheid South Africa a “friend and an ally.” He even permitted American corporate support for the racist regime. In 1981, after pressure from Black leaders and organizations, Congress passed a bill of sanctions against South Africa. Reagan vetoed that.

The list could go on and on, but this would be a much longer piece in that case. But by now, it should be pretty clear: Many of the policies under Reagan were very, very racist. His agenda was not to support the civil rights movement, but to attack its participants and limit its success.

Personally, I am unable to see past the reality of Reagan’s damaging policies in the name of “retro” fashion. There is nothing wrong with wearing what you want to wear and everyone should have the freedom to do so. But as conscious consumers, we have to look at the bigger picture. As modern philosopher Lars Svendsen puts it, fashion is “one of the most influential phenomena in Western civilization since the renaissance.” So, if you choose to wear a Reagan-Bush ’84 shirt, what are you representing? If you knew more about the racist policies behind the Reagan administration, would you continue to wear a shirt promoting his presidential candidacy?

I would hope that the popularity of the Reagan-Bush ’84 logo is due to the modern consumer’s ignorance about Reagan’s racist policies, rather than in support of them. If we want any chance at confronting modern-day racism, we should stop endorsing the racist policies of the past and pick a new fashion trend.

Carli Cosenza can be reached at carlic@umich.edu.