“It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation,” Will Rogers once said, “but you can lose it in a minute.”
This certainly seems to be the case with former President Ronald Reagan, who served as California’s governor from 1967 to 1975. Just a few awful seconds of a 1971 conversation, secretly recorded by then-President Richard Nixon, is all it has taken to indisputably recast Reagan as an unabashed racist.
In the shocking conversation, first revealed by The Atlantic, Reagan refers to African delegates to the United Nations as “monkeys” and says “they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” Nixon guffaws.
The two men – one a governor of California, one a president from California – were upset that the African delegates had voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China. So, in response to this political disagreement, two of the most powerful men in the world resorted to racist invective. Nixon, recounting his conversation with Reagan to a White House staffer, referred to the African delegates as “cannibals.”
President Donald Trump’s increasingly racist rhetoric has stunned political observers, yet he’s simply playing to a constituency that was cultivated over decades by people like Nixon and Reagan. They may have operated on a more subtle level, saving the worst of their bigotry for private conversations instead of declaring it in tweets. Yet the core principle remains the same: racism.
While some political observers wish to cast Trump as an anomaly of history, the truth is that he’s a logical heir to the bigoted lineage of his predecessors. In 1964, the Republican Party began using the “southern strategy,” a ploy to win over white voters in the south by stoking racial anxiety. In 1969, President Nixon launched the drug war as a way to lock up black people, according to one of his top aides.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” said former Nixon domestic policy chief John Erlichmann in a 1994 interview with journalist Dan Baum. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
Reagan’s critics have long pointed out both the implicit and explicit racism in his statements and policies.
“If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so,” said Reagan during his 1966 campaign for governor.
He crushed Pat Brown in a landslide.
As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recounted in his book “Conscience of a Liberal,” Reagan visited Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980 and declared “I believe in states’ rights.” It was an obvious bow to racism and segregation, especially in the town where three civil rights movement activists – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were murdered in 1964.
Yes, Reagan’s racism was there all along, in plain sight, for everyone to see. Yet, for decades, it was also easy for him to get away with it. Not anymore. Times have changed, and the taped conversation with Nixon lays bare Reagan’s unadulterated racism.
Reagan died in 2004 and can no longer atone or apologize. Unfortunately, the National Archives hid the tape for decades in order to protect Reagan’s privacy, allowing him to evade any reckoning.
But it’s never too late to set the record straight.
Democrats and Republicans alike have often elevated Reagan as an example of political pragmatism and good old-fashioned American values. They hearken back to his sunny disposition and his hale, hearty image as “The Gipper.” At a time of increasingly extreme political division, it’s tempting for some to look to the past as simpler and better.
Yet we must dispose of these comforting myths. Men like Nixon and Reagan held the most powerful posts in America for decades. Their legacy lives on today in the form of crushing poverty, overcrowded prisons and a nation where racial divisions and inequities still run deep.
In his official gubernatorial portrait, Reagan stands in front of the State Capitol. The Sacramento sun shines bright and his famous smile beams. It was during this era that he uttered his ugly racist words to the president of the United States, who laughed. Reagan’s racism would later be reflected in the policies he pursued as president.
Going forward, there’s no honest way to remember him without acknowledging this shameful fact.