But Trump’s apparent disdain for Black political leaders goes far beyond his own feelings about Obama. The idea that Black people are unfit for leadership or policymaking has deep roots in American history. A product of proslavery thinking that justified the enslavement of millions of African-descended people in the United States for more than 300 years, the belief that Black people were intellectually and morally inferior became the sine qua non of the White supremacist backlash that toppled Reconstruction. The idea had a very specific goal: to replace efforts to extend political and civil rights to formerly enslaved people with campaigns to violently rescind them.
Justifications for slavery had long included the argument that Black people were incapable of taking care of themselves. Slavery’s apologists, including many of this country’s founders, presented enslaved people as childlike, at best, or just plain stupid. Either way, they argued Black people were not just unsuited for freedom, but also they benefited from the kind of care and instruction White enslavers ostensibly provided them.
In addition to arguing Black people were “dull and tasteless,” a sign of their intellectual inferiority, Thomas Jefferson also believed they were incapable of spousal or parental love and felt only the basest sexual desire. While Jefferson may have lamented slavery’s existence in the new American nation, saying it was like “holding a wolf by the ears,” his political successors, men like Vice President and Sen. John C. Calhoun, embraced slavery as the nation’s salvation. In 1837, a decade after Jefferson’s death, Calhoun declared slavery “a positive good” because it instilled in Black people a sense of Christian duty and discipline, along with other attributes he believed they lacked.
Samuel Cartwright, a Louisiana physician who relied on pseudoscientific “evidence” to argue for Black inferiority, wrote that Black people were “like children [who] require government in everything … or they will run into excesses.” According to Cartwright, who relied on now debunked phrenological studies popular in the 19th century, Black people suffered a “deficiency of cerebral matter” that left them incapable of independent thought and prone to a host of bad behaviors, such as lying, stealing and running away from their enslavers.
Ideas such as these formed the foundation of proslavery ideology in the years before the Civil War.
After 1865, when formerly enslaved African Americans gained civil and political rights during Reconstruction and began organizing their own independent political movements across the former Confederacy, the proslavery narrative of Black debasement, inferiority and corruption took on new urgency.
From 1866 to 1870, Congress passed a number of key pieces of legislation aimed to bring about biracial democracy in the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which led to the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteed former enslaved people the rights of citizenship, including equal protection of laws. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, secured Black men the right to vote. These three laws, among others, precipitated a revolutionary political transformation in a region where only recently Black people had been held in perpetual bondage.
The result was an astonishing level of political activity among the country’s new Black citizens. During Reconstruction, 16 Black men served in Congress and more than 600 in state legislatures. Countless others served in local offices like sheriff, tax collector and magistrate. Still others held federal appointments to positions like postmaster.
To circumvent Black Americans’ newfound political power, their opponents dusted off the old arguments about inferiority to assert Black politicians had destroyed the South.
Shortly after vetoing the Civil Rights Act, President Andrew Johnson declared that calls to enfranchise Black men would result in a “relapse into barbarism” and “a tyranny such as this continent has never yet witnessed.”
Such ideas emboldened and then justified violence against Black political leaders. White paramilitary organizations like the Klan targeted Black politicians for brutal reprisals. In his testimony to Congress in 1871, Rep. Abram Colby (R-Ga.) recounted how White men had repeatedly tried to bribe him into switching parties or resigning from office. When he refused, hooded men dragged him from his house, beat him severely and left him for dead in the woods.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., when Andrew Flowers defeated a White candidate for Justice of the Peace, Klansmen whipped him, too. Flowers told investigators looking into reports of political violence that his attackers informed him, they would not permit a Black person to “hold office in the United States” — using a slur for Black person.
The Equal Justice Initiative estimates that White terrorists bent on eliminating Black political activity killed at least 2,000 Black southerners during Reconstruction.
The perpetrators rarely demurred their use of violence. Emboldened by the lack of state or federal prosecution for their crimes, White insurgents justified their violence as a right of their manhood and citizenship.
Journalists and then scholars provided an intellectual foundation to allow these racist ideas to persist into the 20th century. A 1874 book entitled “The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Rule” was written by a Maine native named James Pike, who worked as a journalist for the New York Tribune and had once been a supporter of Reconstruction. But efforts to empower Black southerners with the vote led him to abandon the project. Upon his arrival in South Carolina, Pike devoured the sensational tales of malfeasance and corruption that White South Carolinians fed him.
Pike accused the Black majority legislature of plundering the state coffers to fund “free schools” and a Black militia to combat the overblown threat of the Ku Klux Klan. He told readers how Black legislators made a fortune from fraudulent railroad bonds that ultimately left the White taxpayer holding the bag.
Even those who were inclined to be honest, Pike claimed, were too enamored with the pageantry and spectacle of political posturing to be effective leaders; they spent most of their time reciting long, rambling speeches and debating inconsequential matters in a pathetic effort to “parrot” White politicians.
Pike presented his report as an “eye witness” account and generations of White Americans viewed “The Prostrate State” as a kind of historical text documenting what happened when Black politicians were allowed to run a state government.
So, too, did many professional historians. For much of the next century, scholars like William Dunning trained their students to view Reconstruction as a “tragic era” when formerly enslaved people were given too much power, which they abused and mishandled. It would take the tireless dedication of Black scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin and the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century to loosen the Dunning School’s grip on Reconstruction history. Their scholarship exposed the bias of Pike’s account, revealing how he cherry-picked anecdotes that supported his long-held views on Black inferiority.
White supremacy has long depended on discounting the leadership abilities of Black people, and this is why disparaging comments like those Cohen describes are so dangerous. Positioning themselves as the protectors of law and order against radicals who sought to destroy the country’s peace and tranquility, White guerrillas set the stage for more than a century of violence and terror, which White intellectuals then helped to justify. The legacy of their Reconstruction-era campaigns continues to cast a dark shadow over this nation, shaping the way White Americans view Black protest and political action, as well as how the state and private citizens police those actions.