Trump’s fear of black competence
By Charles M. Blow
Of the many disturbing and scandalous stories about Donald Trump in Michael Cohen’s new book, “Disloyal: A Memoir,” one in particular sticks out to me. It is a continuation of centuries of white supremacist thought that has handicapped Black people and Black leadership.
It is when Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, writes:
“As a rule, Trump expressed low opinions of all Black folks, from music to culture and politics. Africa was a hellhole, he believed, and Nelson Mandela, to use but one example, was an object of contempt for Trump. ‘Tell me one country run by a Black person that isn’t a shithole,’ he would challenge me as he cursed out the stupidity of Obama.”
“When Mandela passed away, years later, Trump told me he didn’t think the South African founding father and national hero was a real leader — not the kind he respected. ‘South Africa was once a beautiful country twenty, thirty years ago,’ Trump said, endorsing Apartheid-era white rule.”
He directed an expletive at Mandela and said, “He was no leader.”
This contempt for Black people and Black governance may be experiencing a fresh bloom with Trump, but it has ancient roots, deep and tangled.
During the first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Douglas accused Lincoln of wanting to turn Illinois into a colony for free Black people, arguing:
“For one, I am opposed to Negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon Negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.”
Lincoln, defensive, responded:
“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the Black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”
Many leaders in the United States would come to use Black struggle — in Africa and America — as proof of Black incompetence.
As Adam Serwer has written in The Atlantic, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, wrote in his private correspondence that “wherever you find the Negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.”
Lee, who fought against granting Black people the right to vote, wrote in 1868 that “the Negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.”
In 1890, the former Mississippi newspaper editor and Confederate soldier Solomon Calhoon wrote in a pamphlet titled “Negro Suffrage” that to understand Black people one need only look to Africa, where there was “no advancement, no invention, no progress, no civilization, no education, no history, no literature, no governmental polity.” He continued, “We see only ignorance, slavery, cannibalism, no respect for women, no respect for anything save the strong hand.”
Calhoon would become president of the state’s constitutional convention that year and write white supremacy into law. During the convention, one delegate said: “Let’s tell the truth if it bursts the bottom of the Universe. We came here to exclude the Negro. Nothing short of this will answer.”
States across the South would quickly call constitutional conventions of their own to follow the Mississippi example.
This view of Black people as irresponsible, erratic and dangerous was not confined to the political sphere, it bled over into the cultural sphere.
In the 1915 silent film, “Birth of a Nation,” the country’s first true blockbuster, the film credited for helping revive the Ku Klux Klan, there is a ruckus scene depicting the South Carolina House of Representatives. The screen card says the white delegation is in the minority.
In the scene, the Black politicians (white men in blackface) stand, shout and eat chicken, or sit, some with bare feet on desks and others ogling white women in the gallery. All the while, the white delegation sits properly and demur, a civilized contrast to the incivility.
President Woodrow Wilson, a racist, would show the film at the White House. In the film, one of the screen cards would credit him with this quote: “The policy of the congressional leaders wrought … a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South … in their determination to ‘put the white South under the heel of the Black South.’ ”
All these views have tracked forward into the current era. They have fueled everything from white flight and gentrification, to urban renewal and mass incarceration.
Trump’s attacks on what he now calls poorly run, Democratic-controlled cities are often in fact an assailing of cities where Black people and other minorities are concentrated and in which they often have control. His relentless, yearslong attack on Chicago makes sense in this context: It has a large Black population and for the last year or so, a Black mayor.
One thing that white supremacists have always twisted is this: They ravage lands and oppress people, then ascribe the inevitable disastrous result of the ravaging and oppression to the victim’s character and capacity, rather than to their own callousness and cruelty.
They hurt people and then shame their expression of pain.
They want to assert that Blackness is broken without acknowledging that they did the breaking. They want to look down on Africa without acknowledging that they drained that continent during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They also don’t want to acknowledge that the European colonizing, mining and plundering of that continent had disastrous and retarding effects on it.
They don’t want to acknowledge the effects of redlining, unfair lending, employment discrimination and concentrated poverty on many of America’s cities, even before white flight and massive disinvestment.
In a sense, the fact that Black people in this country must struggle to live and to lead is one of white supremacy’s crowning achievements.