Last week, the historian Timothy Naftali revealed a 1971 conversation between Richard Nixon, then the president of the United States, and Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, in which Reagan referred to African United Nations delegates as “monkeys” who are “still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” Reagan was expressing anger over those African nations that voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, rather than Taiwan, which had held the seat since the UN was founded, in 1945.
The bald racism of the remarks makes it hard to look beyond the words themselves and focus on the worldview they expressed. Reagan and Nixon were declaring their belief that the African delegates were rendered unfit for participation in world affairs by virtue of their ethnic background, a perspective that inevitably reflects on the rights of black people in the United States. No belief in American history has been more threatening to democracy, or consumed more American lives, than the certainty that only white people are fit for self-government, and the corresponding determination to exclude other citizens from the polity. A man acting on that belief last weekend drove 600 miles from Dallas to El Paso, Texas, to kill 20 people, in the name of stopping an “invasion” of Texas by the people who have lived in Texas since before there was a Texas.
It’s also a belief that continues to shape American politics, one held by the current occupant of the White House. President Donald Trump’s racial conception of American citizenship, and his denigration of nonwhite immigrants from “shithole countries,” is but an extension of Reagan’s and Nixon’s logic. It forms the moral core of much of Fox News’s programming, which warns white Americans day in and day out that their country is being stolen by minorities. And it justifies the long-term efforts of Republican elites to rig democracy to their advantage, by limiting or diluting the political power of nonwhite Americans through gerrymandering and disenfranchisement. The significance of Reagan’s and Nixon’s remarks is not simply what they said. It is that their conversation shows that, although Trumpism is in some ways unique, what Americans confront today is not nearly so alien to their history and culture as many might assume.
When the former abolitionist Horace Greeley turned against Reconstruction, he nearly took the whole country with him.
The powerful owner of the New-York Tribune was once a reliable Republican partisan. But in the May 1871 issue of the Tribune, an anonymous correspondent attacked the Reconstruction government in South Carolina as emblematic of other Republican-controlled state legislatures throughout the South, a place where black Americans, “a class just released from slavery, and incompetent, without guidance, to exercise the simplest duties of citizenship,” had become “the governing class in South Carolina, and a class more totally unfit to govern does not exist upon the face of the earth.”
Those words reflected Greeley’s own views, according to the historian Eric Foner, who writes in Reconstruction that Greeley saw black people as an “easy, worthless race, taking no thought for the morrow.”
Although he expressed them as an attack on the governing abilities of the freedmen, Greeley’s true objections were ideological, as the historian Heather Cox Richardson writes in Death of Reconstruction. After the Civil War and emancipation, black Americans sought to enjoy their newfound liberty. They wanted to run their own businesses, they wanted to establish schools for their children, and they wanted to tend their own land and manage their own fates.
But white elites still held economic power in Southern states, even if their political power had been diminished by the enfranchisement of the freedmen. For the masses of the freedmen to become more than a captive—if nominally free—labor force for white employers would require government intervention. And for wealthy, conservative Republicans like Greeley, and the white-supremacist Democrats who had lost power in the South, that kind of state intervention on behalf of workers and the poor was antithetical to the American system of government.
Conservative Republicans began to echo some of the earlier Democratic warnings about Reconstruction, in less flagrantly racist terms. Whereas Democratic newspapers once warned that the “poor whites of the country are to be taxed—bled of all their little earnings—in order to fatten the vagabondish negroes,” Richardson writes that “some Northern Republicans were willing to accept Southern Democrats’ opposition to African-American rights so long as their complaints were framed in terms of a conflict over political economy rather than race.”
But there could be no freedom for the freedmen without state intervention. White bankers withheld credit from black entrepreneurs, white landowners refused to sell or rent land to black farmers, and white labor organizations largely excluded black workers. It was not, as their Northern and Southern critics charged, that black people did not want to work, earn, and build their own lives. It was that they were not allowed to.
And so the emancipated turned to the government for the resources and freedom the market denied them, although the extent to which they did so was greatly exaggerated by their critics. As Richardson writes, a disproportionate number of black legislators in Reconstruction governments were drawn from the nation’s small black elite, not from among former field hands. The intervention they proposed was most often correspondingly moderate, if radical to the old planter class and its acolytes.
Nevertheless, in response, white men who had long benefited from a government that defended their freedom to prosper flew into rage over the belief that, as the Tribune correspondent wrote, “they were robbed to support the extravagance of the ‘Nigger Government.’” Incapable of seeing the freedmen as full human beings with their own aspirations, their own beliefs, and their own idea of freedom, men like Greeley concluded that because they were black, they were simply too dumb to know better than to seek to rise above their station.
Greeley would lead an unsuccessful revolt against President Ulysses S. Grant, on the Liberal Republican ticket. Although Greeley’s run for president, in which he was also the Democratic Party’s nominee, ended in failure, the critique of the freedmen’s ability to govern that he embraced would outlast him, as Richardson writes. It would provide the North with a rationale for retreating from Reconstruction that was not a betrayal of the Civil War, it would justify the violent disenfranchisement and dispossession of black Americans in the aftermath of Reconstruction, and it would allow for reconciliation between the white North and white South on the basis of a bipartisan, white-supremacist consensus.
The ideological belief that black people were simply unfit for self-government, and therefore justifiably excluded from politics, would linger much longer. The persistence of that conviction was so great that, a century after the Tribune published its attack on the Reconstruction governments, it would emerge in a private conversation between the 37th president of the United States and the 40th president of the United States, both members of the Party of Lincoln—or perhaps, more accurately, the Party of Greeley.
With these two presidents, as with Donald Trump, there is no way to separate their dehumanizing assessment of foreigners from their beliefs about those Americans who share the same ancestry. Nixon and Reagan saw the African delegates’ failure to do what they wanted them to do not as a reflection of their own perspectives, motivations, and beliefs, but as evidence of their inferiority.
“I’m not saying that blacks cannot govern; I am saying they have a hell of a time,” Nixon told Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a separate conversation uncovered by Naftali about African states. “Now, that must demonstrate something.” Nixon’s arrogance about white men’s inherent talent for governance is startling given that only six years before, the United States had finally become a full democracy, nominally guaranteeing all of its citizens the right to vote, an event that occurred a full century after the Civil War. Nixon himself would also soon become the first president to resign in disgrace, after failing to obstruct a federal investigation into his own criminal wrongdoing.
Nixon’s and Reagan’s racism had also blinded them to what actually occurred at the UN: They had been diplomatically outmaneuvered by China, which had spent years forging ties with African nations in a bid to increase its own influence as it split from its close alliance with the Soviet Union. China had worked diligently to present its agrarian communism as the logical path for rural societies seeking independence and prosperity, and as a way to resist Western dominance.
“The Chinese are trying to make a name for themselves in Africa; they see Africa and building alliances there as really important to their ambitions for Beijing to be recognized as the legitimate government of China,” Laura Seay, a professor at Colby College who focuses on African politics, told me. “This is in the depths of the Cold War, and the United States diplomats at that time misread what was going on. They read Chinese behavior as consonant with the Soviets; it took time for them to see how deep that divide was.”
The Chinese government funded infrastructure projects, offered medical aid, and made a strong public-relations push to present itself as being in solidarity with oppressed nations around the world fighting white colonial governments or leaders aligned with them. The United States, in the meantime, was focused on fighting communism, which in practice meant supporting white-minority or colonial governments in Africa—including, most notably, the apartheid government in South Africa. By 1971, the CIA had participated in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1961; the U.S. had ignored Portuguese atrocities committed in an attempt to retain control of its African colonies, and had quietly backed the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. As independent African nations were emerging, and American priorities aligned the U.S. with the European colonial masters those nations were battling, China positioned itself alongside those seeking independence.
“China put itself forth as an ally, a powerful nation in the third world,” says Elizabeth Schmidt, a professor emeritus of history at Loyola University Maryland and the author of Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror. “The United States under Nixon, and later Reagan, was quite sympathetic to the white-settler colonies like South Africa.”
While America was trying to reconcile its own contradictions, the Soviet Union and China were eagerly exploiting them through propaganda, as American segregationists and their political enablers loudly denounced the civil-rights movement as a communist conspiracy.
It may seem a strange irony that self-styled champions of individual liberty like Nixon, Reagan, and Barry Goldwater consistently backed white-minority governments in Africa. That support was inconsistent with a belief in the fundamental democratic rights of all human beings, which all of them espoused. But it was consistent with the belief that black people could not govern themselves, whether in South Carolina or South Africa. Just like Greeley during Reconstruction, Nixon and Reagan saw the struggles African nations faced emerging from colonialism as symptoms of black inferiority.
“During decolonization, African leaders were trying to figure out how to run a country, how to bring in revenue, how to settle tensions between ethnic groups and regional blocs, how to build political institutions,” Seay said. “With a few exceptions, colonizers had allowed for very limited development of political institutions.”
Many black Americans and black Africans in the 1950s and ’60s saw their struggles as linked. As the historian Mary Dudziak writes in Cold War Civil Rights, during the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy hoped to win black votes despite his tepid civil-rights record by supporting the independence of African nations. At the 1963 conference of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, African leaders adopted a resolution expressing “deep concern aroused in all African peoples and governments by the measures of racial discrimination taken against communities of African origin living outside the continent and particularly in the United States of America.” In 1964, Malcolm X told the Organization of African Unity, “We, in America, are your long-lost brothers and sisters,” and implored African leaders to use their influence on behalf of black Americans.
African diplomats who visited the United States were also forced to personally contend with segregation, until just a few years before Nixon and Reagan’s conversation. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African dignitaries in Washington, D.C., would not have been able to eat at a restaurant, go to a movie theater, or visit a barbershop in suburban Maryland or Virginia, both Jim Crow states. Dudziak cites Dean Rusk, the secretary of state under Kennedy, recalling an incident in which a black diplomat was forced to eat outside an airport restaurant where all the white passengers were eating, during a layover in Miami.
“The delegate received a folding canvas stool in a corner of the hangar and a sandwich wrapped with waxed paper,” Rusk wrote in his memoir. “He then flew on to New York, where our delegation asked for his vote on human rights issues.”
That context helps explain how the People’s Republic of China won its vote, and why the African delegates would have refused the entreaties of the United States. But racism often involves assuming that people different from you could not possibly be as logical or rational as you; it was easier for some American leaders to dismiss Africans as backward than to try to understand the role U.S. policy had played in losing African support to Beijing.
The conversation between Nixon and Reagan records sentiments that, before Donald Trump, presidents typically expressed in private. But it also shows that racist presidents can be restrained by Americans committed to equality under the law. Nixon’s manipulation of white resentment and fear helped him win two elections. But politics still compelled him to administer the 1968 Fair Housing Act*. Ronald Reagan opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but he failed in his attempts as president to water down the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, which was strengthened over his objections. Trump’s racism and nativism is no more impervious to the ability of the American people to constrain it through politics, should they choose to do so.
Nixon died in 1994. Reagan died in 2004. Neither lived to see Barack Obama, a Kenyan American, become the first black president of the United States in 2009, lift the nation out of a recession, pass the greatest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson, and avenge the worst attack on the United States since the Civil War. Although his presidency had many flaws, Obama did not resign in disgrace. He did not secretly sell weapons to Iran to fund death squads in Central America in violation of federal law. He did not prey on a White House intern in the Oval Office. He did not lead America into the worst foreign-policy debacle in its history, a needless war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. He did not preside over a historically corrupt administration, aid a foreign attack on American democracy, obstruct an investigation into that attack, or surround himself with a hive of future convicts.
I am not saying, to borrow Nixon’s language, that these white men couldn’t govern; I am saying they had a hell of a time. Now, that must demonstrate something.
*A previous version of this article stated that Nixon signed the Fair Housing Act; he administered it after taking office in 1969. We regret the error.