Reagan: Was he really a racist?
Conservatives have always insisted that their hero, Ronald Reagan, “didn’t have a racist bone in his body,” said Josh Levin in Slate.com. But last week, a recording emerged of Ronald Reagan talking about black people “behind closed doors,” and it wasn’t pretty. In the tape of a 1971 phone call with President Nixon, then–California Gov. Reagan angrily complains about watching Tanzanian officials dancing in celebration after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China. “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan tells Nixon, who “cackles” in response. In a subsequent call, a giddy Nixon described Reagan’s rant about African “cannibals” and said that the governor “spoke for racist Americans.”
Look—Reagan’s use of the word “monkeys” was admittedly “sickening,” said Jay Nordlinger in NationalReview.com. But it was “uncharacteristic.” In private letters during his presidency, Reagan wrote about being “frustrated and angered by the attempts to paint me as a racist.” In speeches, he “constantly emphasized the common humanity of Americans” of every race, and applied that “universalism” to foreign affairs, working to advance human rights in China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. Ask anyone who knew Reagan, said Paul Kengor in Spectator.org, “and they will tell you that he was not a racist, period.” There are no other records of him making similar comments, which can’t be said for Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and plenty of other Democratic icons. Racism, to Reagan, “was a sin,” and his entire life reflects that view.
Black people would tell you otherwise, said Renée Graham in The Boston Globe. Reagan popularized the “vile stereotype” of poor black women as “welfare queens,” and he exploited it “to attack housing benefits, aid to children in poverty, and food stamps programs.” His disdain for AIDS victims was disastrous for straight black women as well as gays, and he was similarly blind to the racially skewed consequences of his War on Drugs. By launching his 1980 presidential campaign with an ode to “states’ rights” in Mississippi, Reagan clearly proved he was willing to tap into “white fear and resentment.” That cynical Republican strategy has a direct lineage from Nixon to Reagan to Donald Trump. The Gipper’s 1980 campaign slogan, after all, was “Let’s Make America Great Again.”