Last week President Trump pardoned Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, whose 1913 conviction by an all-white jury under the Mann Act was widely considered payback for the audacity of dating white women. During the ceremony, Trump lamented that Johnson’s conviction was a “racially motivated injustice.” It is hard to know exactly which constituency Trump was courting with his pardon of Johnson, who died in 1946. It is unlikely that the pardon will help Trump’s dismal approval rating among black people. But Republican operatives have seized on the pardon to claim progress on Trump’s civil rights record and to counter the charges that the president is racist.
The problem with claiming that the Johnson pardon signals progress is that Trump’s antipathy to racial injustice doesn’t extend beyond the late boxer’s case. Trump supports, and lobbied for, the NFL’s new rules punishing players who protest police brutality. Rather than recognizing the racial injustice the players are challenging, Trump claims those who refuse to stand for a compulsory display of patriotism “shouldn’t be in the country.” This is a common American political narrative: venerating dead black heroes while pillorying the living. The United States has a history of lionizing black folks it helped send to the grave.
Lest folks think I am unfairly singling out Trump, his political enemies also employ this tactic. For instance, James B. Comey — who, despite his long-held Republican affiliation, has transformed into a Trump nemesis — used this strategy as head of the FBI. Comey condemned some of the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI sent the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a letter encouraging the civil rights leader to commit suicide. Comey claimed these tactics were “evil” and kept a copy of the order to wiretap King on his desk as a reminder of the FBI’s overreach. Yet Comey’s bureau called for exactly this type of surveillance on Black Lives Matter activists, the spiritual heirs to King’s vision.
Past civil rights victories are often used as a kind of political cudgel to deny present racial realities. When removing the entrails of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. argued that “our country has changed,” in a decision partially invalidating the basis for that change and undermining its staying power. King’s words regularly get deployed as propaganda for policies and practices that he expressly condemned. Anti-affirmative-action crusaders quote King’s famous hope that his children would be judged “not … by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” while ignoring King’s support for affirmative action. Too often, Americans easily recognize historical racism — the kind with bedsheets and “no colored” signs — but seem blind to present manifestations.
Some white Americans see legitimate black protest safely confined to the past. Although secular retelling often implies widespread acknowledgment of racial inequality under Jim Crow, opinion polling showed that most whites thought black protesters during the civil rights movement were asking for too much, too quickly, a pattern that holds today. In general, white Americans think that protesting the government is a useful way to improve the country. This view of protest makes intuitive sense, given that the country was born through protest. Yet when whites are asked about black protest specifically, their support drops. One very effective role of racism is making its outrages seem normal. The premise of black inferiority, which is central to racism, implies those at the bottom of the racial hierarchy deserve to be there, and by dint of this deservingness, protest against this position is more likely to be seen as illegitimate. Further, few acknowledge that even small anti-racist victories are often met with what Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University, has called “white rage,” characterized by whites’ backlash against any policies they see as potentially lowering their relative advantage.
Of course, I support pardoning the innocent. And the FBI had no businesses surveilling King (or the larger movement). But when political operatives perform these gestures as cover for repressive political programs, they are empty.
The practice of invoking dead black leaders to show substantial racial progress draws attention away from the many ways current policies and practices reproduce the racial status quo. Trump’s minimal condemnation of historical racism, while welcome, means little as his administration enacts policies that separate migrant children from their families, he courts followers who would like to make the United States a white homeland, and his Justice Department doubles down on the war on drugs. Similarly, Comey’s acknowledgment that wiretapping King was evil did little to stop him from enacting similar policies.
Both men cynically invoke the bad racial past to perpetuate present racial evils.