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Renée Graham

Why is anyone surprised by Reagan’s racism?

Reagan exploited whites’ resentment.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/file 1980

President Ronald Reagan was racist. In other news, the moon is high.

The only thing shocking about the news that Reagan, the Republicans’ beloved secular god, made a racist comment is that there are people who are somehow surprised by this revelation. In the October 1971 audio clip, Reagan, then California’s governor, calls President Nixon to denounce a United Nations vote recognizing the People’s Republic of China, one celebrated by members of the Tanzanian delegation.

“Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did . . . to see those, those monkeys from those African countries,” Reagan said. “Damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”


Nixon, who taped the conversation, responded with a hearty laugh. (Always with the taping, that Tricky Dick.)

I hope I’m not breaking any news here when I say Nixon, too, was a racist.

The tapes were released by the National Archives after a request from Tim Naftali, who directed the Nixon Presidential Library from 2007 to 2011.

“This October 1971 exchange between current and future presidents is a reminder that other presidents have subscribed to the racist belief that Africans or African Americans are somehow inferior,” Naftali, now a New York University history professor, wrote in an essay for The Atlantic. “The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.”

In a statement, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation said, “If he said that 50 years ago, he shouldn’t have. And he would be the first person to apologize.”

There’s no “if.” That’s clearly Reagan’s voice. And Reagan’s list of apologies to black people would be far longer than contrition over a recorded slur. He bent one woman’s story, dubbing her a “welfare queen,” into a vile stereotype of black women hustling taxpayer dollars to support lavish lifestyles. Reagan then used it to attack housing benefits, aid to children in poverty, and food stamp programs. His disdain for the gay community made him ignore the ravages of AIDS, which also disproportionately affected straight black women and Haitians, for most of his presidency. Many were killed by presidential neglect, as well as the virus.


Racist beliefs lead to racist policies.

Yet this audio clip serves another purpose. It’s irrefutable evidence that racial animus was rooted within the GOP decades before Trump descended a Trump Tower escalator and slandered Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” It’s always been too easy for Republicans to pretend that Trump is a defect in their conservative machine. He’s not a bug; Trump is the inevitable result of its Southern Strategy, launched during Nixon’s 1968 presidential run.

Like failed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, Nixon recognized that white fear and resentment of African-American progress and achievement is America’s eternal flame. That’s been the case since the end of the Civil War and the thwarted Reconstruction era.

Nixon exploited it. Reagan perfected it — with a smile.

That through-line of racism and racist calculation from Nixon to Trump didn’t skip Reagan. Always a better actor in political office than he was in Hollywood, Reagan honed his avuncular affability, and branded it “Morning in America.”

His 1980 election victory meant mourning in America for black people. In a 1960s essay called “Don’t Discount Reagan As the Next Threat to Negro,” baseball and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson predicted the hardships his community would face under a Reagan presidency.


“The backlashers,” as Robinson called those who opposed civil rights, “are anxious to see the central power of the U.S. go into the hands of a man who is clearly opposed to every step of social progress the nation has made in recent decades,” he wrote. Nominating Nixon or Reagan, Robinson said, “would be telling the black man it cares nothing about him or his concerns.”

Robinson died in 1973. He wouldn’t have been surprised by the toll that Reagan in the White House had on African-Americans less than a decade later.

Of course, the Reagan-as-racist storyline won’t stick for those who work hard to keep that artificial shine on his reputation. Never Trumpers get all twisted when the current president compares himself to the 40th; that’s because they believe Reagan is superior to Trump. It’s nothing more than salve for those horrified that the GOP’s longstanding racism is now indelibly writ large.

For the rest of us, the Reagan audio clip confirms what we already knew. There’s no deviation or detour between the man polluting the White House now and the one who, in 1980, ran on the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.