President Trump’s response to the Roseanne Barr controversy this week exemplified a concern many Americans have about him: He does not understand the history of race in America.
When Barr compared Valerie Jarrett, who was a top adviser to President Barack Obama, to an ape, she was using a very old stereotype, one that has been used to dehumanize black people. Such dehumanization has been a rationalization for those who wanted to deny black Americans human and civil rights.
After the incident, historian Arica Coleman wrote in The Washington Post:
For centuries, Europeans saw Africa as a site of sexual vice. European lore abounded with tales of the “monstrous sexuality of far-off lands where, as legend had it, men sported gigantic penises and women consorted with apes.” From the second century on, such figures as Ptolemy, Leo Africanus, Francis Bacon, John Ogilby and Edward Long envisioned the inhabitants of Africa as the most sexually promiscuous beings to inhabit the earth.
The racist ideology of the ape trope is no joke. It has had devastating effects on black people globally. Its continued use reinforces notions of blacks as inferior, subhuman and bestial, which in turn continues to justify their subjection and quasi-citizenship both nationally and globally.
Barr’s racist comment — which was reminiscent of some of the attacks on first lady Michelle Obama — were not as one-dimensional as the name-calling that Trump pointed to when asked to respond to Roseanne's tweets.
But Trump doesn’t seem to understand that — or at least did not acknowledge it. His first response was a tweet that said: “Why aren’t they firing no talent Samantha Bee for the horrible language used on her low ratings show? A total double standard but that’s O.K., we are Winning, and will be doing so for a long time to come!”
It wasn’t a double standard if you include the historical context of white women lodging racist threats at black women vs. the Samantha Bee incident, which involved two white women.
Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, author of “Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy,” previously wrote about this in the New York Times.
An element of surprise still animates discussions about white women supporting white supremacist politics. In part, it’s because the narrative of white supremacist history in the United States is not immune to the same sexist forces that have shaped so many of our national historical narratives: It has left out the women. And that has consequences for how we think about these politics today.
Other examples of Trump’s politics perhaps being shaped by his ignorance of black history included his response to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) after the Charlottesville incident.
After Trump appeared to defend the white supremacists who organized a deadly rally in Charlottesville, calling them “very fine people” and saying there was violence “on both sides,” the country's only black Republican senator visited the White House to educate Trump on why so many people criticized his response to the event in which a woman was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting white supremacists.
The message did not seem to take.
While talking to reporters, Trump appeared to double down on his criticism of progressive activists fighting racism.
“We had a great talk yesterday,” Trump said at the time. “I think especially in light of the advent of antifa, if you look at what’s going on there, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also, and essentially that’s what I said.”
Any student of history of race in America would not equate the work of anti-racism activists with white supremacists. But Trump displayed his lack of awareness of history when he suggested that Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), civil rights icon, was “all talk.”
Lewis, who was brutally attacked on “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 by white supremacists while marching for the voting rights of black people, has repeatedly backed policy proposals to help reduce the equality gap between white Americans and people of color. He eventually led the effort to get legislation passed to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which seeks to educate visitors on the history of black people in America.
The Fix previously wrote that when accused of being racist, Trump’s most common retort is that he is “the least racist” person anyone has ever met.
We cannot account for that claim. But we can say it seems unlikely that Trump is deeply knowledgeable on issues related to race in America — and, perhaps more important, how they affect policy. And that is troublesome, considering how central the history of racism is to many of the issues affecting millions of Americans today.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization focused on economic issues, previously told The Post this could be reversed if Trump desires.
“I'm one who always believes there's room for reconciliation, but it would require an effort by the president to educate himself on black America. I don't think he knows or understands black America.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report quoted an incorrect reference to Francis Bacon Hermit. The correct name is Francis Bacon.