Unearthed Audio Reveals Reagan’s Racist Comments To Nixon
“Some of Reagan’s most divisive policies—like embracing the apartheid government of South Africa and inventing the trope of the ‘welfare queen’—may take on a different light now.”
The National Archives released a previously withheld recording of a 1971 phone call between then-President Richard Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan last week, revealing that Reagan described African delegates to the United Nations as “monkeys” who were “still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
“To watch that thing on television, as I did, to see those, those monkeys from those African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan told Nixon, who laughed in response.
The recordings were unearthed by Tim Naftali, a clinical associate professor of history at New York University, who requested a complete version of the conversation from the National Archives. Naftali published the recording in the Atlantic last Monday, writing that the racist segment of the conversation appeared to have previously been withheld “to protect Reagan’s privacy.”
According to Naftali, who was also the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library from 2007 to 2011, Nixon felt validated by Reagan’s remarks, as he “believed in a hierarchy of races, with whites and Asians much higher up than people of African descent and Latinos.”
In an internal memo, Nixon described Reagan’s appeal as deriving from “personal charisma, glamour, but primarily the ideological fervor of the Right and the emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan somehow to keep him ‘in his place’ or at least to echo their own anger and frustration.”
Reagan and Trump
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s racist tweets against minority congresswomen and disparaging remarks against Rep. Elijah Cummings, numerous analysts have attributed Reagan’s covert racism as a precursor to Trump’s political success.
Reagan, who also used the “Make America Great Again” slogan in his 1980 campaign, is frequently compared to the current president. Pat Buchanan, who served as an assistant to both Nixon and Reagan, described Donald Trump as “a conservative populist and direct descendant and rightful heir to Ronald Reagan.”
Naftali also sees a connection, writing, “The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.”
The Southern Strategy
The Washington Post’s Kyle Longley writes that Reagan’s race-baiting grew more more subtle during his presidency, but was pronounced in his earlier years. In his 1966 campaign for governor of California, Reagan denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, declaring, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”
Historians refer to the Nixon-era efforts to gain support among southern White voters through racism as “the Southern Strategy,” which analysts say Reagan perpetuated through his selective approval of “state’s rights” and use of the racially-charged term “welfare queens.”
Lee Atwater, a Republican political strategist who worked on Reagan’s 1980 campaign, described in a leaked recording from 1981 how racially coded language could be used to win over Southern White voters. Atwater explained how explicit racial slurs that were commonplace before the Civil Rights Movement were no longer admissible, and that more abstract language was needed to exploit racial resentment:
“So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites,” Atwater said in the recording.
Support For Apartheid Regimes
Reagan defended apartheid South Africa and the white-minority state of Rhodesia before and during his presidency, vetoing a bill to impose sanctions on South Africa in 1986. Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the sanctions bill, but some historians argue the president’s support for the apartheid regime extended its lifespan in the face of an international movement to end it. Naftali argues the recordings of Reagan’s racist remarks about African leaders sheds new light on his apartheid position.
“Some of Reagan’s most divisive policies—like embracing the apartheid government of South Africa and inventing the trope of the ‘welfare queen’—may take on a different light now,” wrote the Washington Post.
Critics consider Reagan’s phrase “welfare queen,” an allusion to people of color who abuse social services to live a luxurious lifestyle, as having a damaging legacy on the way poverty is understood in America.
“Without directly mentioning race, his campaign used the story of a Chicago welfare cheat to imply that whites were forced to turn over their hard-earned money to the government to subsidize the lazy lifestyles of people of color,” wrote Longley.
The Trump administration has similarly invoked welfare fraud to justify work requirements for Medicaid and cuts to food stamps, despite the fact that millions of working Americans remain under the poverty line, two-thirds of SNAP recipients are families and work requirements have been shown to have no positive effect on employment.
In March, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke of Reagan’s use of the “welfare queens” trope to justify cuts to social programs that would disproportionately hurt minorities:
“One perfect example – a perfect example – of how special interests and the powerful have pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working Americans in order to just screw over all working-class Americans is Reaganism in the ’80s,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
So you think about this image, ‘welfare queens,‘” Ocasio-Cortez continued, “and what [Reagan] was really trying to talk about… He’s painting this really resentful vision of essentially black women who were doing nothing, [who] were sucks on our country, right? … That’s not explicit racism, but it’s still rooted in racist caricature. It gives people a logical — a ‘logical’ — reason to say, ‘Oh, yeah, no. Toss out the whole safety net.’”
Ocasio-Cortez received intense criticism for her remarks, which she recently doubled down on after the National Archives tape was made public last week. With a recent Quinnipiac poll showing 51% of Americans believe President Donald Trump is racist, the unearthed recordings demand reflection on racism’s enduring role at the heart of American politics.