President Trump's posthumous pardon of boxing legend Jack Johnson is not insignificant. But it would probably be far more meaningful to many Americans if the president was more sympathetic to the concerns of black athletes about racial injustice in 2018.
Trump granted the pardon to Johnson on Thursday, wiping clean his 1913 Mann Act conviction. Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was convicted under federal legislation that made it illegal to cross state lines with a woman “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” During the Jim Crow era, prosecutors often used the legislation as an anti-miscegenation device.
“A truly great fighter,” Trump said Thursday in the Oval Office, where he signed the pardon supported by the Congressional Black Caucus. “He had a tough life.”
The president added that Johnson served prison time “for what many view as a racially motivated injustice.”
And racially motivated injustices against black athletes — and black Americans in general — continue more than 70 years after Johnson's death.
Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales said Wednesday in a statement that police officers had been disciplined for acting “inappropriately” when they “decentralized, tased and arrested” Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown in January during a routine parking violation.
Brown shared his thoughts about the incident Wednesday on Twitter.
“Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community. Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously. I am speaking for Dontre Hamilton of Milwaukee, Laquan McDonald of Chicago, Stephon Clark of Sacramento, Eric Garner of New York, and the list goes on. These people aren’t able to speak anymore because of unjust actions by those who are supposed to 'serve and protect' the people.
“The common denominator in all of these situations has been racism towards the minority community, the abuse of power, and the lack of accountability for officers involved. The lack of repercussions for the police officers involved in so many of these cases is offensive. This is a slap in the face to the victims’ families and communities."
What others found to be a slap in the face Wednesday was the NFL's new policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem if they're on the field. Trump has suggested that the athletes who protest racism and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem should be barred from playing and maybe “shouldn’t be in the country.” The president has been a regular critic of the athletes, most of whom are black, bringing attention to their causes during football games.
“You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe they shouldn’t be in the country,” Trump said in an interview that aired Thursday morning on “Fox & Friends” on Fox News.
Some noted the contradictions of Trump pardoning an athlete who lived on the receiving end of racial discrimination within the same news cycle that featured him criticizing athletes protesting racial discrimination.
If elected, Trump told black Americans, he would address their racial concerns. During his October 2016 “new deal for black America” speech in Charlotte, he said:
“I have heard and listened to the concerns raised by African American citizens about our justice system, and I promise that under a Trump administration the law will be applied fairly, equally and without prejudice. There will be only one set of rules — not a two-tiered system of justice.
“African American citizens have sacrificed so much for this nation. They have fought and died in every war since the Revolution, and from the pews and the picket lines they have lifted up the conscience of our country in the long march for civil rights.”
Many black Americans, athletes and beyond, would like to see their commander in chief address abuses of the law and power by police and the criminal justice system. While much has changed since the days Johnson was jailed essentially for being a black man, the ongoing culture wars about race in America reveal that much has not. And on some issues, Trump has revealed where he stands.