An October 1971 exchange between a then-current and future Republican presidents is a reminder that an Oval Office occupant using language suggesting black people are inferior and subhuman is not new.
Tim Naftali, a history professor at New York University, wrote about and posted audio of a conversation taped by President Richard Nixon where Reagan, then the governor of California, used racially offensive tropes to refer to United Nations delegates from African countries. Reagan expressed his frustration with African delegates siding against the United States in a vote to recognize the People’s Republic of China.
“Last night, I tell you, 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.
Nixon laughed, wrote Naftali, a former director of the Nixon Presidential Library. But that initial conversation furthered an anger in Nixon that helped shape his already prejudiced views toward black people, Naftali wrote:
“Nixon’s anger at the U.N. delegations from African nations for the loss was misplaced. His own State Department blamed factors other than African voting, including maneuvering by the British and French behind the scenes, for the loss. But Nixon would have none of it. The Africans were to blame.”
Previous tapes had already revealed the extent of Nixon’s racist views, but the tape represented a more blatant example of Reagan’s willingness to traffic in stereotypes than we have previously seen. But many people were less than shocked to hear it.
Reagan is largely credited with amplifying the stereotype of black women being “welfare queens” abusing tax payer dollars to support lazy and promiscuous lifestyles. Historians and lawmakers point to policies disproportionately harming people of color as being the foundation of his “War on Drugs.” Acts like these have been far more instrumental in shaping Reagan’s legacy with black Americans than those often highlighted by conservatives.
So perhaps it should be of little surprise that Trump — who 51 percent of voters believe is racist, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll — shares a slogan, “Make America Great Again,” Reagan used in his 1980 campaign. (Trump says he did not know about Reagan’s use of it)
Trump has been accused by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among others, of adopting the slogan to covertly say “Make America White Again” — something critics say Reagan more discreetly communicated to the white working-class voters who delivered the White House to him.
The history of the presidency shows there have been numerous racists — from both parties — to occupy the Oval Office, but since the civil rights movement, expressing racist views in public is a political liability.
The current debate, of course, has arisen in the wake of Trump’s Twitter attacks on four minority congresswomen, and the city of Baltimore and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). Trump has repeatedly defended his statements, tweeting, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”
As Naftali wrote: “The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.”