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 powerof 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.