Ronald Reagan was the governor of California in 1971 when he phoned the White House to vent his political frustration to President Richard M. Nixon and, according to a newly released audio recording, called African people “monkeys” in a slur that sparked laughter from the president of the United States.
The previously undisclosed exchange took place after the United Nations voted to expel Taiwan in order to seat representatives from Beijing, a move that the United States opposed. Delegates from Tanzania celebrated with a victory dance in the General Assembly hall.
“To see those monkeys from those African countries, damn them,” Reagan said, to laughter from Nixon. “They are still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
In other recordings, Nixon went on to recount his conversation with Reagan to others, describing the African delegates as “cannibals” as he sought to blame them for the UN vote.
The exchange between two former presidents of the United States on Oct. 26, 1971, was revealed in new audio released by the National Archives and published Tuesday by The Atlantic. The audio was the latest reminder of the long history of racism by American presidents and came as the current president faces fierce criticism for his attacks on prominent people of color.
“Reagan opens the door and Nixon runs with the racist tropes,” said Timothy Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum who requested the recording and wrote the article in The Atlantic.
“This is not just a story about Reagan’s racism,” he said in an interview. “It’s also a reminder about how in the Oval Office, racism can beget racism” and “reveal latent racism in others.”
The National Archives originally withheld part of the recording to protect Reagan’s privacy, said Naftali, who requested a full version last year. He said the timing of the release this month was a coincidence that offered important historical context.
In recent weeks, President Trump has been under renewed criticism for comments that have been condemned as racist.
A poll conducted this month by Quinnipiac University found that half of voters believe Trump is racist, but voters are sharply divided along partisan lines. When separated by party, 86 percent of Democratic voters classified Trump as racist, while 91 percent of Republicans said he was not.
Race is expected to be a key issue in the 2020 election, as Democratic candidates seek to prove they can help America bridge its racial divide.
From the beginning, the American presidency has been stained by racial prejudice, often a reflection of broader sentiment among white citizens. Such views have persisted well into modern times.
“If you dig deep enough you’ll find something like this in probably most presidents of the 20th century,” said Jelani Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and former director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, who frequently writes on race, politics, history, and culture.
Reagan died in 2004. “If he said that 50 years ago, he shouldn’t have,” Melissa Giller, a spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, said in a statement. “And he would be the first person to apologize.”
Naftali said that the tapes revealing the private conversation between Reagan and Nixon were a “data point” to help understand their racial worldview and a prism through which to view their policies. At the same time, the legacies of some of the presidents who held such views are complicated, Cobb said.
“The fact that they said something racist doesn’t tell you everything about their politics,” he said. “And then sometimes it does.”