Clear Signals

Six weeks ago the Reagan administration faced one of its most embarrassing controversies when it announced that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would no longer deny tax exempt status to religious schools practicing racial discrimination. It was certainly an important issue. Many of these "Christian" schools are nothing more than fronts to avoid racially integrated public schools. Any public subsidy to such institutions is contrary to even the most limited notions of fairness. It was particularly unsettling to see churches asking the state for assistance in carrying out such un-Christian policies.

But the segregation academies issue was also significant in the same way that the tip of an iceberg is. It was a relatively small, visible indication of something very big and dangerous just below the surface.

Reagan's response to the widespread criticism of the school tax decision was predictable. He back-pedaled on the issue and then tried to divert the political heat to Congress by claiming that what he really meant was that legislation was needed to legitimate the IRS policy. This was not true. The prohibition of tax exempt status for segregation academies was mandated by federal court interpretations of existing statutes. And the four-day gap between the two announcements casts further doubt on this rationale.

But the real substance of Reagan's defense against charges of racism was to trot out his greatest asset, his congenial personality. He earnestly insisted at a press conference that he has always been on the side of black people. When Attorney General William French Smith was testifying before a Senate committee regarding the Voting Rights Act several days later he said that blacks should trust the administration's intentions because, "The president does not have a discriminatory bone in his body."

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