It’s been interesting to read growing confirmations that Reagan was obviously a racist and intentionally harmed Americans who did not have white skin.
One of the best explanations I’ve seen so far is how latent racism in Reagan’s campaigns elevated his popularity, while his opponents actually suffered when they tried to call it out without directly addressing Reagan as a racist.
Josh Levin writes about Carter being chastised for opposing racism, and also how Reagan escaped any condemnations at the same time.
Carter is said to have given a Neshoba County Fair speech with some strong words about fighting hatred:
“You’ve seen in this campaign the stirrings of hate and the rebirth of code words like states’ rights in a speech in Mississippi,” Carter said, adding that “hatred has no place in this country.”
And then Carter is said to have had to go on the defensive, denying he was calling Reagan a racist, while Reagan just went right on signaling with “stirrings of hate…code words”.
Moreover, Levin points out Reagan (like the present occupant in the Whitehouse) gave Nixon’s racism the appearance of being less extreme, which is no small feat.
I thought of the Neshoba County Fair and its aftermath this week when the Atlantic published a previously unknown snippet of a conversation between Reagan and President Richard Nixon. On the morning of Oct. 26, 1971, Reagan, who was then the governor of California, told Nixon that African nations were to blame for the United Nations’ vote to eject Taiwan and welcome in mainland China. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said in audio captured by Nixon’s White House taping system, “to see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon cackled in response. A few minutes later, the president called Secretary of State William Rogers to report, in the words of the Atlantic’s Timothy Naftali, “that Reagan spoke for racist Americans, and they needed to be listened to.”
On that tape, Reagan’s racism is direct and undeniable. Nixon, whose own racism is extraordinarily well-documented, immediately rejoices in it, laughing as Reagan talks about African “monkeys.” In his call with Rogers, by contrast, Nixon distances himself from the racist commentary, attributing it to someone more prejudiced than he is. (He also tells Rogers, erroneously, that Reagan had called the African leaders “cannibals.”) At the same time, Nixon categorizes Reagan’s views as a valuable political data point, a sentiment that needs to be understood and nurtured, not rejected.
In today’s terms, this analysis is not only historically interesting, it also impacts our debate about the safety of artificial intelligence.
When machines use only straight reasoning, devoid of the truth about Reagan’s signaling and racism, they will accelerate the harms from hatred. I spoke about this briefly in my RSA Conference Presentation earlier this year: