I was recently listening to “The Hug Heard Round the World,” an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s always-interesting podcast, Revisionist History. The hug in question was applied by Sammy Davis Jr. to Richard Nixon in 1972, and it made such big news because Davis was an African-American entertainer and erstwhile civil-rights activist and Nixon was apparently no friend to blacks. In addition to being the first presidential candidate to successfully use the Southern Strategy, Gladwell explained, Nixon was known to use the ugliest and most notorious racial slur for black people, the one commonly referred to as “the N-word.”
That surprised me a little bit: I felt that if it were the case, I would have been aware of it, and I wasn’t. Researching the matter, I found no shortage of proof that Nixon, in his private White House conversations, talked like a stone-cold racist. These gems, for example:
- “Blacks can’t run [Jamaica]. Nowhere, and they won’t be able to for a hundred years, and maybe not for a thousand. … Do you know, maybe one black country that’s well run?”
- “I have the greatest affection for them [blacks] but I know they’re not going to make it for 500 years. They aren’t. You know it, too. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal, they’re dishonest, but they do have some concept of family life. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like.”
In those cases and others he expressed his bigotry in relatively polite language, not racial epithets.
However, a search for “did Nixon say [racial slur]?” yielded two results. One was a comment the president reportedly made in a phone call to Henry Kissinger: “Henry, let’s leave the [racial slur] to [Secretary of State] Bill [Rogers] and we’ll take care of the rest of the world.” That quote originally appeared in Seymour Hersh’s 1983 book The Price of Power: Kissinger in Nixon’s White House. Hersh does not make it 100-percent clear where he got it, but the source appears to be Roger Morris, a onetime staff member at the National Security Council, who was told about it by another staffer, unnamed, who was listening in on the conversation.
But the other quote is solidly documented: It can be heard on one of the White House tapes at the National Archives and in this clip from The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. As the Chicago Tribune reported in 2001, Nixon, speaking with then-staffer Donald Rumsfeld on July 22, 1971, criticized Vice President Spiro Agnew for expressing the idea that “black Americans aren’t as good as black Africans.” The president counters that “most of [the Africans] are basically just out of the trees.” He goes on:
Well, ah, even the Southerners say, “Well, our [racial slur] are better than their [racial slur].” Hell, that’s the way they talk! ... It’s like when our black athletes, I mean in the Olympics, are running against the other black athletes, the Southerner may not like the black but he’s for that black athlete.
I did an internal double-take when I read that, because I had heard the “our [racial slur]” line before. It was probably just a couple of years after Nixon said it. In college I had a friend from Alabama, Mark, and I distinctly remember him once talking about the attitude of white Southeast Conference football fans, now that the teams had become integrated. That was the very line he joked about them saying.
Mark’s family was of the professional class. As I recall, he would have expressed outright disdain for George Wallace and other blatant racists. I chuckled at his remark, I’m sure, because it mocked the hypocrisy of the football fans.
But I don’t feel good that I didn’t object to Mark’s language. I feel worse about my reaction to another joke he told, which has been pushed to my consciousness by remembering the football one. This used acceptable language but it was flat-out racist. It took the familiar “three biggest lies” form. These jokes usually start out with “the check is in the mail” or “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat” and escalate from there in outrageousness and surprise. Mark started with the check-in-the-mail line and finished with something that doesn’t comport with Lingua Franca’s taste standards. The second “lie” was tucked in comfortably like a middle child. It was, “Black is beautiful.”
How did I react to this terrible joke, which I’m sure Mark had heard back home in polite gatherings? I probably just looked at him blankly or looked away. Maybe I offered up a slight smile. Either way, I didn’t object. I know that I was young and times were different. But I’m still ashamed.