By Dr. Paul Kengor
This article originally appeared in The American Spectator on May 16, 2023.
[pullquote]The president did not coin “welfare queen” — the liberal media did.[/pullquote]
“As California Governor (1967-1975), Ronald Reagan coined the term ‘welfare queen’ as racist coding,” claims the official report of the formal state of California Reparations Task Force, created by Gov. Gavin Newsom. “This terminology conjures stereotypes of single Black women as hypersexualized, aggressive, and dependent on government income with frivolous spending habits.”
The committee is demanding a formal apology for Reagan’s alleged misbehavior.
In truth, it is the committee that should apologize. Its statement on Reagan is incorrect from start to finish. As governor, Reagan never used the term “welfare queen.” In using it after becoming governor, he did not coin the term. He quoted others. And he never referred to the woman as black.
The woman was named Linda Taylor. Reagan called her the “so-called ‘welfare queen’” because others, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and black publications like Jet magazine called her that.
There are so many errors and ironies about this particular smear on Reagan. In fact, according to Taylor’s birth record, she was white. In reality, given that ethnic composition is rarely black or white for many of us, she was at least of mixed race. Moreover, her shameless scheming of the government was far worse than Ronald Reagan could have imagined. The woman employed 80 different names, in addition to portraying herself as several different races and ages.
Reagan was right to highlight her. She was an amazing fraudster and a cautionary tale of the need for welfare reform.
As noted by Rick Perlstein, the fair-minded liberal historian of Reagan, the Chicago Tribune from 1974–80 referred to this “welfare queen” in no less than 80 different stories. Reagan biographer Craig Shirley adds, “Both The Washington Post and The New York Times did lengthy stories on Chicago’s ‘Welfare Queen,’ long before Reagan.” So did the black magazine, Jet, which in its Dec. 19, 1974, issue ran a piece titled “Alleged ‘Welfare Queen’ Is Accused of $154,000 Ripoff.”
In his definitive biography of Reagan, Lou Cannon reports, “As far as I can determine, Reagan never identified her either by name or race in any of his speeches.” Cannon relates that Taylor was “well known to midwestern television viewers” after she was put on trial and her case became infamous. She was all over the press — print, television, radio, local and national news. That’s how Ronald Reagan learned about her.
“Even before the trial,” writes Cannon, “Taylor’s case generated considerable publicity.” Taylor “became the symbolic embodiment of welfare fraud.” For those Democratic and Republican legislators making the case that the system needed to be reformed, her case spoke to it in spades. And, naturally, no one accused those pointing to Taylor as pushing “racial tropes.” They have only done that posthumously to Ronald Reagan.
An honest liberal who dug into the welfare queen story is Josh Levin, who wrote a lengthy exposé for the left-wing Slate magazine in December 2013. Levin deserves journalism awards for his fine investigative work and surely would have received them if Ronald Reagan had been a liberal Democrat.
Levin’s piece, titled “The Welfare Queen,” is extraordinarily illuminating. Suffice to say, Linda Taylor’s double and triple and quadruple life — a master of many guises (four aliases by 1976) and various claimed ethnic-racial backgrounds — was astonishing. Levin reported: “What I found was a woman who destroyed lives, someone far more depraved than even Ronald Reagan could have imagined. In the 1970s alone, Taylor was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking…. For those who knew her decades ago, Linda Taylor was a terrifying figure.” Levin added: “Those who crossed paths with Linda Taylor believe she’s capable of absolutely anything. They also hope she’s dead.”
The full story of Linda Taylor is incredible. None of it is apparently known to the Reagan attackers. Or they have outrageously chosen to ignore it.
Levin noted that he could find no examples of Ronald Reagan using the word “welfare queen” on the stump in 1976. The likes of the New York Times did stories about the “welfare queen” but did not directly quote Reagan using the term — because he had not. It is remarkable that the Times ran a Feb. 15, 1976, piece titled “‘Welfare Queen’ Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign” but did not quote Reagan calling her that, nor using her name. “Mr. Reagan never mentions the woman by name,” conceded the Times.
Whereas Reagan never once shared the woman’s name — in a gracious gesture so to not personalize the situation — most media sources did not hesitate. The Times gave her name in its opening sentence.
While I haven’t found any examples of Reagan saying “welfare queen” on the stump, he did use the term in one of his radio commentaries. Josh Levin agrees: “In October 1976, Reagan … devoted one of his regular radio commentaries to updating the story of the ‘welfare queen, as she’s now called.’”
Interestingly, when Reagan here said, “[The] welfare queen, as she’s now called,” he could have cited the Feb. 15, 1976, edition of the New York Times. Of course, he need not cite any source. Everyone called her that.
In that October 1976 radio address, Reagan never once mentioned Taylor’s name or race. Of course, he used phrases like “fraud” and “welfare foolishness.” That was the whole point.
Leftists nonetheless have sharpened the knives. The Reagan “welfare queen” smear is another arrow to fire at Ronald Reagan as a “racist.” And, to that end, it is worth pausing to look into the hearts of the accusers on this one.
In my view, this attack on Reagan underscores the very real racism of some of his liberal attackers. Note that they assume that when someone like Reagan criticized welfare, he was criticizing black people. That is a vile assumption by white liberals, especially given that, as anyone who has studied welfare policy knows, and as is known by most people of common sense and observation, the vast majority of people on welfare have always been white, not black. Reagan himself as governor knew and noted precisely that, telling one black woman who wrote to him that when he reformed welfare as governor: “The people that we took off the rolls were not particularly Negroes—quite the contrary. We found for example one county in which 194 county employees—mainly white—were drawing welfare too.”
As for the California reparations committee, it is peddling another leftist trope manufactured against Ronald Reagan. It is sad to see an official government committee for the state of California lazily not doing its homework. Rather than California owing an apology for Ronald Reagan, the committee owes an apology to Californians and the Reagan family.
Paul Kengor is Editor of The American Spectator. Dr. Kengor is also a professor of political science at Grove City College, a senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values, and the author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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