There has been a deafening silence in U.S. politics in response to proof that throughout the 1980s, the United States had a president who believed Black people to be subhuman.
On July 30, archivist Tim Naftali published a tape of a 1971 phone call from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, to President Nixon, in which Reagan insulted African diplomats in the most racist possible terms. A vote had just been held in the United Nations to decide who would hold the seat for China: the Beijing government under Mao, which had controlled the country for 22 years, or the U.S.-backed Kuomintang government, which had fled in 1949 to the island of Taiwan.
A majority in the UN voted against the Taiwanese government. Reagan was furious—but at whom? Many African states had supported Beijing, and Tanzanian diplomats celebrated by dancing in the assembly hall. Reagan had been watching on television. He called Nixon and snarled, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon burst out laughing and joined in mocking the African delegations.
Naftali, previously head of the federal Nixon Presidential Library, obtained the tape only this year. Nixon famously tape-recorded about 4,000 hours of conversations in his White House. This section has sat unreleased since 1971. In 2000, the National Archives was ordered to go through all the tapes, previously only partially published, for public release. When they got to this racist conversation between Nixon and Reagan, they chose not to release it. In other words, for two decades, a U.S. government institution censored public historical records from a president who left office only 11 years earlier, to cover up his anti-Black racism.
Broadly, there were three responses to this racist audiotape in the establishment U.S. media. A wide range of major media outlets, including the New York Times, published stories repeating the basic details of what is said in the phone call. These stories included varying degrees of comparison with racism shown by Donald Trump and some general comments on anti-Black racism in US political history. The Times ended ambiguously by quoting journalism professor Jelani Cobb, who said Reagan’s comment constitutes “a data point” amid wider historical information to understand his attitudes.
Major media also gave opportunities to spokespeople to respond on behalf of the deceased president. The Times article quoted an (apparently psychic) representative from the Reagan Presidential Foundation: “If he said that 50 years ago, he shouldn’t have. And he would be the first person to apologize.” The Washington Post (owned by Amazon mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos) went further by immediately giving Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis op-ed space. Davis, noting she had for decades automatically denied allegations that her father was racist, admitted that his words on the tape are indefensible, but immediately swerved to tell her audience that she knew his words were “an aberration” that she hoped “others will forgive my father for.”
A small number of media outlets offered blunt responses, including an op-ed by imam Taymullah Abdur-Rahman in The Boston Globe: “We didn’t need to hear an explicit phrase from Reagan … to know that he was a white supremacist. If you really want to check whether a politician is racist, don’t just judge their words—look at their policy and voting trail.” The Washington Post subsequently opened op-ed space to liberal historian Kyle Longley, who examined many of Reagan’s racist political stances and concluded there was “a fundamental if uncomfortable truth” of racism from Reagan to Donald Trump today, but saying little about how Reagan’s moral failings and relationship with white racism might be relevant to the evolution of US politics as a whole.
Prejudice, Politics and Power in the 1980s
Reagan had been accused of racism over decades. In his first presidential campaign in 1980, for example, he gave a speech supporting “states’ rights” in front of a huge white crowd at a Mississippi county fair. But coverage of the unearthed audiotape has evaded a lot of the broader implications and relevant history. The year the tape was recorded, 1971, was only seven years after the Civil Rights Act was passed and three years after the murder of Martin Luther King. It was the height of the Black Power movement and resistance to the genocidal U.S. war in Vietnam. Reagan is universally acknowledged as the lead architect of the modern Republican Party. He was a key leader in the move to neoliberalism.
Reagan’s racism is not being discovered now. During the 1960s, he opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He was a campaign organizer for Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee who called ending segregation “unconstitutional.” In 1980, Reagan said the Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South.” When he ran for governor of California in 1966, Reagan said, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so.”
Black workers in the United States had to seek jobs from bosses, buy or rent homes and deal with white neighborhoods and suburbs, cops and mayors, who frequently thought about them what Reagan said out loud: that they were less than human and should be held down.
Strikingly, Reagan was not alone in his opinion about whether it was OK to keep Black people from buying or renting a home. Ten years later, the Democrat Jimmy Carter, about to win election as President, promised he believed in enforcing the existing federal law against housing discrimination but assured voters, “I have nothing against a community that’s made up of people who are Polish or Czechoslovakian or French-Canadian, or who are blacks trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods. This is a natural inclination on the part of the people.” Carter, the Georgia governor, referred positively to the (intensely segregated) city of Milwaukee: “What I say is the government ought not to take as a major purpose the intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood, simply to establish that intrusion.”
Racial caste in America was being renegotiated. The powerful Black struggles of the 1960s forced the government to end explicit Jim Crow segregation. But the 1970s and 1980s were filled with conflict over continuing segregation. In Detroit and in San Antonio the Supreme Court ruled it is legal to have separate and unequal school districts in overwhelmingly white suburbs around heavily Black and Brown “inner cities.” In Boston, Chicago and Wilmington, Delaware there was intense racist opposition to proposals to bus students to desegregate schools. Joe Biden was already a U.S. Senator for Delaware and led the political fight against busing between the segregated white suburbs of Wilmington and the largely Black areas of the central city. Biden said loudly that supporting busing outside the core South would lose the Democratic Party the support of what he described as the “great unwashed middle class–of which I am part.” Here there is an obfuscatingly articulated but barely hidden class plus race theory of society that is in mortal opposition to both freedom and socialism.
Reagan’s and Carter’s own campaign statements show clearly where they both decided to stand: on unofficial but obvious anti-Black oppression. Reagan openly approved housing discrimination. Meanwhile, Carter’s speech about “naturally” keeping a neighborhood “ethnically pure” covered up the violent means that had set up those neighborhoods: racist riots, lynchings, “sun-down towns,” red-lining, restrictive covenants, and arson, along with day-to-day prejudice.
The racism Reagan relied on was more than his “Southern strategy” and more than his nationwide appeal to white racism. American racism always contains the incompletely articulated but loud ideological message: Capitalism in America is fair. What everyone has is in proportion to their merit. The very, very rich (white) ruling class did not obtain its wealth by exploiting other human beings and grabbing natural resources, but by being smart, hardworking and personally impressive. The white worker is told clearly to hold the Black worker in contempt—with the reasoning that people in the United States are not dependent on the often capricious and oppressive decisions of people above them. Prevailing living conditions for everyone are normal.
Reagan became infamous for shouting in speeches that (apparently Black) “welfare queens” were living in luxury by gaming the system of survival payments for very poor U.S. families. He suggested that (apparently Black) young men were “going ahead of you to buy a T-bone steak [with food stamps in the supermarket] while you were waiting to buy hamburger.” According to Reagan, Black people were the enemy of average, working-class whites. No one was supposed to need welfare. Yet from 1976 to 1986, U.S. capital laid off almost 300,000 workers from the steel industry alone. A pattern of union busting had already been set in motion by Carter, who ordered striking coal miners back to work and passed a law that bans federal workers (like the largely Black postal strikers of 1970) from striking. Reagan furthered the signal for breaking unions by firing all the air traffic controllers who went on strike. He encouraged corporate restructuring with mass layoffs undermining workers’ bargaining power. And he pushed through epoch-changing tax cuts for the very rich. The top-bracket federal tax rate for the income of the very rich was slashed from 70% to 28%.
What did Reagan open the way for? Statistics published by the Federal Reserve show that in the three decades since his presidency, the wealth of the top 1% has more than tripled: from $8.4 trillion to $29.5 trillion in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars. Meanwhile, the total assets of the bottom 50% of the U.S. population have fallen from 1989 to 2018. The net wealth of the bottom half is now less than zero because of debt. Virtually all the additional wealth created by technical progress boosting productivity over 30 years has gone to the capitalist class.
From Slavery to the Era of “Color-Blind” Racism
Reagan’s extreme racist comments should reopen questions about how U.S. capitalism developed up to today. The United States was built largely on slavery and on conquered land. Reagan reveals again that the racism built in these processes did not go away sometime shortly after 1964.
Life changed immensely between 1776 and 1971; yet there were some continuities in anti-Black racism. In “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1785), Thomas Jefferson asserted that Black people were naturally lacking in both intelligence and imagination for poetry or art, denying that differences between Blacks and whites were caused by slavery.
Two hundred years later, Nixon believed the same thing. Like Jefferson, he claimed to believe it without any self-interested motives: “I have reluctantly concluded, based at least on the evidence presently before me … that what Herrnstein says, and what was said earlier by Jensen, is probably … very close to the truth”—referring to a psychologist who claimed that Blacks were naturally less intelligent than whites and Asians. He continued with novel reasoning: “…of the 40 or 45…black countries [at the U.N.], not one has a president or a prime minister who is there as a result of a contested election such as we were insisting upon in Vietnam…I’m not saying that blacks cannot govern; I am saying they have a hell of a time. Now, that must demonstrate something…The reason I have to know it is that as I go for programs, I must know that they have basic weaknesses.”
A century before Reagan’s speech in Mississippi, when Reconstruction was overthrown there, a member of a racist militia attacking Black voters said: “I think the negro is about two degrees below the white man. I think that God put the white man at the last link in the chain. I think that the negro is by nature dishonest [and] destitute of all ideas of virtue.”
In 1906, the Bronx Zoo put a Congolese man named Ota Benga on public display in a cage in its Monkey House. The northern U.S. elite was so thoroughly racist that when African American ministers protested this, the New York Times opined: “It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies … are very low in the human scale … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.”
After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King said, “There were no Negro bus drivers … [and it] was not uncommon to hear [the white drivers] referring to Negro passengers as … ‘black cows’ and ‘black apes.’” How in particular does this differ from Reagan’s ideas?
In the 1980s and 1990s, white police officers in Chicago and New York City casually displayed signs depicting the cities’ first Black mayors as apes. Together with President Clinton’s 1994 “crime bill,” Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and “tough on crime” policing pushed the huge expansion of racist mass incarceration in the United States. From 1980 to 2010 the number of prisoners in the United States increased fivefold, reaching about 1% of all adults.
So Why Did Obama Praise Reagan as a Great “Patriot?”
The 1971 tape ought to stir up discussion of U.S. racism as a system of power. Racism has not been operating only in the minds of individual “lower-class” whites. It is a chain from the bottom to the very top of society, an implied cross-class alliance, and an arrangement of social production and reproduction—who does what work, and who lives under what conditions. It intimately shapes political consciousness on a mass level.
During President Obama’s presidency, he praised Reagan’s legacy several times, including at the 2011 centennial of Reagan’s birth, which became a cult-like celebration by the elite. Obama offered some mild disagreements with his predecessor, but within a context of respect and even praise:
[W]ith all the excesses of the 60s and 70s…he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship. … [Reagan] had faith in the American promise; in the importance of reaffirming values like hard work and personal responsibility. … He understood that while we may see the world differently. … The fact remains that we are all patriots who put the welfare of our fellow citizens above all else … [His philosophy was] what allowed him to work with leaders of all political persuasions to advance the cause of freedom, democracy and security around the world.
These glowing compliments speak mountains about the U.S. political system. In reality, Reagan stood for white supremacy and the enrichment of the capitalist elite “at home.” The Congressional Research Service reports that from the start of Reagan’s presidency to today, the median U.S. real wage has risen only 6%, while the level of goods and services produced (GDP) per capita has just about doubled. In Obama’s words it is impossible to overlook the endorsement of Reagan’s attacks on Black workers in the claims of standing for “hard work” and “responsibility.” The words “freedom, democracy, and security” clothe Reagan‘s military aid to right-wing dictatorships that massacred poor people, indigenous people and dissidents in Central America, his unconcealed support for the apartheid government of South Africa and his extreme statements in favor of the Vietnam War.
In the fulsome praise of the last Democratic president for a racist, neoliberal imperialist, we can find the reasons for the deafening silence in 2019. The Republican Party has basically nothing to say about a U.S. president’s reference to Africans as “monkeys.” The Democratic Party does not think it worthwhile to say too much about it, even while it claims to oppose President Trump’s racism. After all, this is a party that supports border walls and deportations. The New York Times has given columnists op-ed space to call Reagan’s racism a “political mythology” as recently as 2007 but goes relatively undisturbed by recent revelations.
We have to lay Reagan’s racism at the door of U.S. capitalism and nationalism. The “patriotism” Obama extolled is the tissue and sinew that naturally hold together all the diverse justifications for this social system. The system denies responsibility for racism but cannot engage with even the most recent history. The American state has always been a heavy machine of domination. The U.S. left has to address the actualities that Reagan’s racism points to and work to build a committed, working-class movement for liberation.
- Lemann, Nicholas. Redemption, The Last Battle of the Civil War. New York: Phillips, Straus and Giroux, 2006. (pg 153).
- Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. New York: Phillips, Straus and Giroux, 2010. (pg 8).