It seems as if everyone—except his racist supporters—are recognizing the obvious: Donald Trump is a racist. But racism extends far past Trump and his voting band of angry Americans. The growing recognition of Trump’s racism must rouse a growing recognition of racist ideas wherever they are found in America and in American history. Otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the point of resisting a president and leaving his racism free to reign among supporters and opponents alike?
Contrary to popular conceptions, American history does not bequeath a clear-cut battlefield of racists squaring off against antiracists. The history is much more complex and contradictory. Some Americans articulated both antiracist and racist ideas. Some of America’s greatest warriors against anti-Black racism have been some of America’s greatest enforcers of racist ideas. We can no longer flaunt their antiracist achievements and hide their racist ideas about Black people being in some way inferior. Trump’s bigotry should rouse us to uncover racist ideas wherever they may be found—even in our own minds, even in the minds of our heroes.
Let’s open the closets of history.
William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) ~ Founder/Editor of The Liberator
William Lloyd Garrison is well known and well admired—and rightfully so—for popularizing the antiracist demand for immediate emancipation in the decades before the Civil War. But Garrison also popularized one of the most racist ideas of the 19th century: that slavery had literally dehumanized enslaved Blacks and made them inferior to free Whites. “Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind,” Garrison wrote in the preface to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). It was one antiracist thing to say slavery was dehumanizing, it was yet another racist thing to say slavery did dehumanize Black people and sunk them “in the scale of humanity” below free White people.
Walter Francis White (1893–1955) ~ NAACP Executive Secretary (1931–1955)
After courageously passing for White during his remarkable investigations of southern lynchings, Walter White took the helm of the historic NAACP. While at odds with NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois, White transformed the NAACP into a powerful litigating and lobbying outfit that broke the legal back of segregation. White envisioned equal opportunity for African Americans civilly, but never culturally. White believed the “development of an intensive Negro culture” ultimately “works a greater loss upon” us all. Under White’s command from 1931 to 1955, the NAACP “embraced an ideology of extreme cultural assimilationism,” as acclaimed historian David Levering Lewis explained. As his archenemy Mississippi segregationist Theodore Bilbo wanted to rid the nation of African American bodies, White wanted to rid the nation of African American culture. Neither Bilbo’s segregationists nor White’s assimilationists fully accepted African Americans—their bodies, their cultures—as equal.
Bill Cosby (1937–) ~ Comedian and Actor
The Cosby Show featured brilliant comedy and relatable storylines from 1984 to 1992. The stereotype-defying, upwardly striving Huxtables probably persuaded away the racist ideas of many. And yet, their negligible experiences with discrimination simultaneously reinforced the racism of post-civil rights propagandists who were claiming the end of racism and blaming inferior Black behavior for persisting racial inequities. Bill Cosby emerged as the representative of those Black elites blaming poor Blacks for their condition, deploying the same racist ideas about the Black poor as their racist White counterparts. In 2004, Cosby infamously took his blame game on the road, looking down upon poor Blacks as inferior parents, circulating unproven stereotypes. “The lower economic people are not…parenting,” Cosby grumbled at a NAACP gala in 2004. “They are buying things for kids. $500 sneakers for what? And they won’t spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics.” It was a classic case of class racism—Black elites classing the Black poor as inferior.
John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) ~ Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Marshall Harlan is best known for his courageous role as the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld southern segregation statues. “The Great Dissenter,” as Harlan came to be known, first employed the term color-blind in his dissenting opinion in Plessy. “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” Harlan famously wrote. But few Americans know what Harlan stated before this. “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is,” he wrote. “I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” Constitutional liberty as the great heritage of White people? The Great Dissenter never dissented on this racist idea.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) ~ Abolitionist and Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s gripping Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so influential that when President Abraham Lincoln met her in 1862, he reportedly quipped, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe’s horrific depiction of slavery turned millions onto antislavery. But she hardly turned anyone onto antiracism. Stowe lectured in the preface about Black people’s “lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness.” In her paternalistic “concluding remarks,” Stowe called on White northerners to free and teach Blacks until they reached “moral and intellectual maturity, and then assist them in their passage” to Liberia, “where they may put into practice the lessons they have learned in America.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) ~ 16th President of the United States
“I am not nor ever has been in favor of making [Black people] voters or jurors,” or politicians or marriage partners, Abraham Lincoln insisted in a Senatorial campaign debate back in 1858. Physical differences between “the white and black races…I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social equality. And…while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” He carried some of these ideas into the presidency and figured out ways to expel Black people from the nation. I admire Lincoln for doing what I believe nearly all of his predecessors would not have done: signing the antiracist Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But it is not admirable that his emancipation decrees were about something else: saving the Union—a United States with or without slavery. Instead of the Great Emancipator, he should be remembered as the Great Savior. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that,” Lincoln wrote in 1862, weeks before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. On the eve of his death in 1865, he had finally come around to supporting a very limited form of Black male suffrage. But he never did quite come around to antiracist ideas of racial equality.
Earl Warren (1891–1974) ~ 14th Chief Justice of the United States
Chief Justice Warren is best known for writing the unanimous landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed de jure racial segregation. But do you know why Warren and his peers decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”? Warren quite astonishingly agreed with the lower court’s finding that southern schools had “been equalized, or are being equalized.” Warren had been led to believe that “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” It tended to “retard” the “educational and mental development of negro children and deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.” To Warren, segregated schools were not having a detrimental effect on White children. He decided that separate Black educational facilities were inherently unequal and inferior because Black students were not being exposed to White students. Thus integration became—and it remains—a racist one-way street: inferior Blacks being bused to superior White spaces.