A racist statement made by Ronald Reagan in October 1971 is now grabbing headlines thanks to a piece for the Atlantic written by Tim Naftali, and the words are explosive: "To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they're still uncomfortable wearing shoes!" Reagan said in a phone call the then-California governor had with President Richard Nixon, who laughed. (You can hear it here.) Now a clinical associate professor of history at NYU, Naftali explains he was the Nixon Presidential Library's first director, holding the post from 2007 to 2011, and he provides context for the call. The United Nations had, the day prior, voted to recognize China and boot Taiwan, a move that spurred joyous dancing from the Tanzanian delegation; the US was opposed to the move, and Reagan's comment was made in reference to those who didn't align with America.
Naftali explains that when the tape was released by the National Archives in 2000, Reagan's words were excluded in an apparent move for privacy; his 2004 death negated the need for that, and Naftali last year requested a re-review of taped conversations involving Reagan. The full version was released two weeks ago. Naftali provides a deep and historical dive into what the line, and the conversations that ensued, signify. "Had the story stopped there, it would have been bad enough," Naftali writes. "But what happened next showed the dynamic power of racism when it finds enablers." He details how Nixon "used Reagan's call as an excuse to adapt his language to make the same point to others," first calling Secretary of State William Rogers to talk about Reagan's distaste for the "cannibals" (Nixon's word), which he described as a "typical" American reaction. (Read the full piece for much more.)