Ronald Reagan was the governor of California in 1971 when he phoned the White House to vent his political frustration to President Richard M. Nixon and, according to a newly released audio recording, called African people “monkeys” in a slur that sparked laughter from the president of the United States.
The previously undisclosed exchange took place after the United Nations voted to expel Taiwan in order to seat representatives from Beijing, a move that the United States opposed. Delegates from Tanzania celebrated with a victory dance in the General Assembly hall.
“To see those monkeys from those African countries, damn them,” Reagan said, to laughter from Nixon. “They are still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
In other recordings, Nixon went on to recount his conversation with Reagan to others, describing the African delegates as “cannibals” as he sought to blame them for the United Nations vote.
“Reagan opens the door and Nixon runs with the racist tropes,” said Timothy Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum who requested the recording and wrote the article in The Atlantic.
“This is not just a story about Reagan’s racism,” he said in an interview. “It’s also a reminder about how in the Oval Office, racism can beget racism” and “reveal latent racism in others.”
The National Archives originally withheld part of the recording to protect Reagan’s privacy, said Mr. Naftali, who requested a full version last year. He said the timing of the release this month was a coincidence that offered important historical context.
In recent weeks, President Trump has been under renewed criticism for comments that have been condemned as racist. He told four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries, echoing language long used to discriminate against people of color and deny their constitutional rights to citizenship and speech. (Three of the congresswomen were born in the United States and the fourth was naturalized as a teenager.)
Over the weekend, Mr. Trump set off a backlash after he assailed a Baltimore-based congressional district that is 53 percent African-American as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
A poll conducted this month by Quinnipiac University found that half of voters believe Mr. Trump is racist, but voters are sharply divided along partisan lines. When separated by party, 86 percent of Democratic voters classified Mr. Trump as racist, while 91 percent of Republicans said he was not.
Race is expected to be a key issue in the 2020 election, as Democratic candidates seek to prove they can help America bridge its racial divide.
From the beginning, the American presidency has been stained by racial prejudice, often a reflection of broader sentiment among white citizens. Such views have persisted well into modern times.
“If you dig deep enough you’ll find something like this in probably most presidents of the 20th century,” said Jelani Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and former director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, who frequently writes on race, politics, history and culture.
George Washington owned slaves and wrote that “most” were lazy when unsupervised, though he later freed his slaves in his will. Theodore Roosevelt dismissed “Negroes” as a “perfectly stupid race,” while Woodrow Wilson and Dwight D. Eisenhower frequently espoused prejudiced views and told racist jokes. Lyndon B. Johnson, sometimes hailed as a civil rights hero, espoused racist views, often referring to African-Americans using slurs.
And Nixon’s own tapes had already revealed that he made disparaging remarks about Jews, black people, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans while in the Oval Office.
Reagan was accused of making coded racial appeals. After the Republican convention in Detroit in 1980, he gave a speech on states’ rights at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. That choice of location, near where three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, was seen by some as a subtle nod to white segregationists.
He is also credited with helping to popularize the political trope of the “welfare queen,” based on a real African-American woman and often used by conservatives to demonize the poor and justify strict regulation of public benefits.
Reagan died in 2004. “If he said that 50 years ago, he shouldn’t have,” Melissa Giller, a spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, said in a statement. “And he would be the first person to apologize.”
Mr. Naftali said that the tapes revealing the private conversation between Reagan and Nixon were a “data point” to help understand their racial worldview and a prism through which to view their policies. At the same time, the legacies of some of the presidents who held such views are complicated, Mr. Cobb said.
“The fact that they said something racist doesn’t tell you everything about their politics,” he said. “And then sometimes it does.”