400 Years Blog #30 – The Racism of Our Presidents

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During the investigation of the Central Park Five, Donald Trump manipulated public opinion by appealing to racism. He paid $85,000 for full-page ads in newspapers with the headline, “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” His vengeful words included, “these muggers and murderers…should be forced to suffer.” Michael Warren, who represented the Central Park Five, wrote that the ads “poisoned the minds of many people who lived in New York” and helped send the teens to prison.

It was Trump’s ability to use racism to get him elected that led Georgetown adjunct professor Preston Mitchum, to call him our “racist-in-chief.” During the campaign Trump publicly doubted Obama’s citizenship, coddled white supremacists, and called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” One of his first hires as his senior counsel was the alt-right supremacist Steve Bannon. Not convinced about Trump’s racism? Read this New York Times article.

But racism emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue shouldn’t surprise anyone given that 12 of the first 18 presidents “owned” enslaved people, including Washington and Jefferson, who had hundreds.  Andrew Jackson, praised as an “Indian killer,” declared that indigenous people don’t have “the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement….”  Henry Lewis Gates in Stony the Road points out racism of the “great emancipator,” Lincoln, including the fact that he often used the n-word.

President Andrew Johnson, who handed the south back to white supremacists during reconstruction, slandered Fredrick Douglass (and all Black people) when saying, “he’s just like any n—-r, & would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.”  In addressing Congress in 1867 Johnson proclaimed, “Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people” and “they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

This executive branch racism continues into the 20th century, with Woodrow Wilson praising the racist film A Birth of the Nation, defending the Ku Klux Klan, and re-segregating many federal agencies.  FDR imprisoned over 100,000 Japanese Americans.

Nixon used racist language in his “southern strategy” to win office. Reagan created the pernicious image of the African American welfare queen. Despite Clinton’s support from the African American community, his crime policy put many of their children in jail for long terms. When racism – intentional or not – flows down from the pinnacle of federal power, is it any wonder that white supremacy still stalks the land?

  • Lesson #138: Trump’s manipulation of the Central Park trials was part of a larger trend in New York City to equate “criminality” with “blackness.”
  • Lesson #139: Trump has insulted nearly every racial group and, in that way, is an “equal opportunity bigot.”
  • Lesson #140: Presidents enslaved Blacks in the following numbers: Washington (317); Jefferson (200+); Madison (100+); Monroe (75); Jackson (200); VanBuren (1); Harrison (11); Tyler (70); Polk (25); Taylor (150); Andrew Johnson (8); and Grant (5).
  • Lesson #141: President Andrew Johnson, Vice President when Lincoln was assassinated, chose racism and appeasing southern whites over healing and justice. Most Americans, tired of Civil War and post-war angst, agreed with his choice.
  • Lesson #142: The following quote by President Woodrow Wilson appears in the first few minutes of the film, The Birth of a Nation: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation…until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
  • Lesson #143: While Franklin Roosevelt condemned lynching, he didn’t support Republican proposals to make it a federal crime out of fear of angering southern Democrats.
  • Lesson #14: While some presidents, like Clinton, had the general support of the African American community, often administration initiatives hurt most people of color, especially through “tough on crime” laws.
  • Lesson #145: Even presidents who were not blatantly racist, supported systems which used racism to prop up white supremacy, including my great-grandfather, William Howard Taft.

 

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