Previously, I pointed out that Paul Krugman got his facts wrong on two of the three examples he used in a much-cited column to allege that Reagan used “tacit race-baiting.” But what of the third example? “During the 1976 campaign Reagan often talked about how upset workers must be to see an able-bodied man using food stamps at the grocery store. In the South — but not in the North — the food-stamp user became a ‘strapping young buck’ buying T-bone steaks.”
I traced the source to a February 1976 New York Times article by reporter Jon Nordheimer about Reagan’s Florida primary campaign. The article states that Reagan made no direct appeals for antiblack votes, and said explicitly he didn’t welcome them. However, Nordheimer added, sometimes “the impression is left, perhaps inadvertently, that he comes close to an indirect appeal in this regard.” The example he gave is that the previous night, Reagan gave a speech in which he repeated a favored anecdote about people being upset when they see a healthy young man buying a steak with food stamps. However, Nordheimer wrote, in Ft. Lauderdale this young man became a “strapping young buck,” a phrase he didn’t use in New Hampshire and other states with small black populations. “Young buck,” the reporter adds “to whites in the South denotes a large black man.” Reagan soon denied any racist intent, stating that when he grew up in Iowa in the 1920s, a young man of any race could be describe as a “young buck.”
I’m not sure what to make of this. Except in the context of Reagan’s remarks, I’ve never heard of [or at least don't recall hearing of] “young buck” being used as a racial term, and I’ve read lots of racist drivel from the South in my historical research. Nordheimer doesn’t cite any source for the claim that “young buck” meant “large black man” in the South.
Just for fun, I searched for uses of “young buck” in the New York Times archive for all of the 1970s. Barry Goldwater is quoted as stating that voters would rather vote for a “young buck” than an old wrinkled guy. A 1977 book review refers to a Scottish protaganist as a “gangling young buck.” Historian Paul Johnson reviews a biography of an “young buck” who became a British statesman. A review of a Japanese movie refers to a “young buck” who approaches a geisha. John Chancellor of NBC News suggests that a “young buck” would inevitably knock him off his perch.
However, there are two references in the sports pages to athletes as “young bucks.” Both of them, football player Emerson Boozer and basketball player Curtis Perry, were black. Neither article mentions their race, but I take this as some evidence that “young buck” may have conjured up an image of “large black man” to some white Americans, even if not consciously/ [Whoops, Curtis Perry was a "young Buck" because he played for a team called the Bucks. So we're left with the Boozer reference: "Not since Emerson Boozer was a young buck skirting the ends in the Super Bowl days have the Jets been blessed with outside speed."]
Meanwhile, it’s suspicious that Reagan added this line in Florida. On the other hand, while Krugman claims that Reagan used this line “in the South” but not in the North, it appears that Reagan actually used the line exactly once.
So I’d say that if you’re inclined to think that Reagan was inclined to use racist code words, you’re likely to think that his phraseology was at least consistent with that inclination, and perhaps additional evidence of it. If you’re inclined to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt, you won’t.
To anticipate comments, one also could argue that “young buck” is irrelevant here, that Reagan was conjuring an image of African American men taking unfair advantage of food stamps regardless of the precise phraseology. That just wasn’t Krugman’s argument, or the argument of others who single out the “strapping young bucks” remark as over evidence of Reagan’s racism.
As a postscript, Reagan’s Florida campaign manager was quoted in the very same Nordheimer article making an overtly prejudiced comment. He said that black Floridians would “rather be promised a ham and a loaf of bread and get the loaf of bread than be promised two loafs of bread and get it. That’s just the way they think.” This guy apparently remained Reagan’s Florida manager through the primary over a month later, which strikes me as more damning than the ambiguous language Krugman raises.
UPDATE: Following some leads from the comments, and having looked at the Times’ archives, I think it’s fair to say that (a) “young buck” was used pejoratively in the South, especially earlier in the century, to refer to young black men; and (b) this was not sufficiently widely known at the time outside the South that it brought the phrase into general ill-repute, even to the extent that a northern editor would notice when a reporter referred to a black athlete as a “young buck.” So did Reagan know about the southern usage and either purposely or unconsciously modify his standard talk to appeal to racism, or was he, a Midwesterner and Californian, using it innocently to refer to a vigorous young man as he claimed, as the Times itself did?