Hoping to attract white racist voters, Richard Nixon ran for president on a segregationist platform, with a twist. Instead of saying “Black” and “white,” he used code words like “ghetto,” “urban,” and “thugs.” This “southern strategy” won him the election and became the standard racist vocabulary for decades.
The ”southern strategy” is a clear example of how racism’s tactics evolve over time. Antiracists have to do the same if they want to be successful. The “southern strategy” is the predecessor to today’s “color blind” racism—in which people claim not to see race, or to be not racist, while still discriminating against certain racial groups and supporting racist policies.
Meanwhile, California governor Ronald Reagan fired Angela Davis from her teaching job at UCLA because she was a communist. This caused a national controversy. Davis got her job back, then lost it again after she defended imprisoned Black activists. Then, one of the activists’ brothers attacked a courthouse, held five people hostage, and got into a shootout with the police. Who got charged with murder? Angela Davis. Apparently, one of Jackson’s guns belonged to her. The penalty was a death sentence. She ran away, got arrested, and then represented herself at her trial—and won. She dedicated the rest of her life to helping the people she met in prison get free.
It's easy to think that the civil rights movement and the government’s attacks on Black activists are long over. But Angela Davis’s case shows that they’re not. Even as the U.S. government celebrates leaders like Dr. King, it has continued to use the law as a tool for injustice by persecuting antiracist activists. However, this strategy also backfired, because it turned Angela Davis into an international celebrity and gave a massive platform to her prison abolition activism.
Over the next few years, public conversations about race and racism exploded. Assimilationist professors said that integration failed because white men were jealous of Black men’s sexual prowess. Black women and LGBTQ people found their rightful place in the conversation through art and literature, like Audre Lorde’s poetry, Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls, and Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple.
Both racist and antiracist work flourished during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, most of the classic antiracist books taught in schools and universities today—and especially the antiracist feminist ones—are from this time period. These works set the terms for today’s conversations about race, gender, and justice.
Meanwhile, white men found another role model in Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s working-class Italian American boxer. Rocky faced Black fighter Apollo Creed, who represented Muhammad Ali. Finally, Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, an incredibly popular antiracist story about slavery and its legacy. The TV version became the most-watched show of all time.
Like Tarzan, Rocky represents white men winning back their dominant role in American life. Even though Rocky isn’t explicitly white supremacist, like Tarzan, it’s still based on the assumption that white people naturally deserve better than nonwhite people—or that the United States rightly belongs to them, rather than all the other groups who also immigrated there (or the native peoples who originally lived there). At the same time, shows like Roots show the power that media can play in spreading antiracist ideas as well.