Last night, on some TV show somewhere, noted eye-drop salesman and third-tier game show host Ben Stein accused President Barack Obama of being the most racist President in history. His reasoning? Because the President keeps “racializing” issues in order to portray Republicans as anti-black and therefore divide America. America! That harmonious nation that has never been divided about anything ever!
Now obviously, one could argue that Ben Stein was at that very moment trying to divide America by portraying Barack Obama and his Democratic party as being anti-white, but never mind that for a moment. Instead of examining the stupidity of his rhetoric, let’s examine the stupidity of his history.
Is Barack Hussein Obama the most racist American President?
No. In fact, we can think of 43 Presidents who you could make pretty strong cases for being more racist than Barack Obama. But, for brevity’s sake, we’re going to present you with a mere 10 Presidents More Racist than Barack Obama.
1. Ronald Reagan
Everyone knows Ronald Reagan, in addition to being the antichrist and the greatest American president, was also not as fond of black people as he could have been. First and foremost, he began the War on Drugs — which, though not explicitly targeted at racial minorities in America, has completely devastated the African-American community while leaving the white community more or less unscathed. (Despite roughly equivalent levels of drug usage.) Additionally, when promoting his ideas for reforming the welfare state, Reagan told a story again and again about a “welfare queen” from the predominately black south side of Chicago who had 80 aliases, a pocketbook full of fictitious deceased husbands, and drove around in a Cadillac. While this story wasn’t entirely untrue (albeit exaggerated and totally unrepresentative of any real welfare fraud), it was clearly designed to play into white fears of shiftless, lazy, good-for-nothing darkies. He also vetoed a bill designed to undermine the violently racist Apartheid regime in South Africa on the grounds that it violated his “executive authority.” Great time to stand up for the rule of law, there, Ronnie. Iran-Contra? Nah. We can fudge the rules. But by Jove we gotta do this Apartheid stuff by the book!
2. Richard Nixon
An excellent President, a great leader, and a true American, Richard Nixon was, like all true Americans, also a laughable bigot. He didn’t like black people. He didn’t like gay people. He didn’t even like Jewish people, once demanding that a subordinate make sure there weren’t any “Jews” at a dinner he was attending unless they were sure the “Jew” had voted for him. And thanks to his obsessive-compulsive need to record everything he ever said, all of that racism is available on tape! Listen to Richard Nixon explain how it will take 500 years for black people to contribute to society. Listen to him explain how he understands that abortion is necessary in some circumstances, like miscegenation! Listen to him tell his Jewish Secretary of State how he wouldn’t mind “a little anti-Semitism” if it made American Jews realize that they’re Americans first and Jews second.
3. George Washington
Old Washington owned a ridiculous number of slaves, which I suppose isn’t surprising given he was ridiculously wealthy. By the time of his death more than 300 were working on his massive Mount Vernon plantation. These days a lot of people like to focus on how Washington hemmed and hawed, like his contemporary Thomas Jefferson, over whether or not he should free his slaves. Supposedly, he thought the institution was immoral — but, actually, most of Washington’s most prominent critiques of slavery were economic. It was just too expensive to have to be responsible for the lives of all that chattel. Even when he uttered his famous “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery,” he was referring more to how much of a pain it was to get rid of his slaves now that they were too old to be profitable and nobody wanted to buy them than he was to any revelation about the universal rights of man.
Likewise, while serving as President in Philadelphia, he went to elaborate lengths to prevent any of his slave-servants from being freed under a Pennsylvania law that granted freedom too any slave that resided longer than 6 months inside the Commonwealth, and sent slave-trackers after a slave that escaped, he complained, “without an ounce of provocation.” George Washington may have believed slavery was immoral but, like most of us in the face of an immense evil that profits us, his moral misgivings never troubled him enough that he was willing to actually sacrifice anything. Instead this man who risked his life, fortune, and sacred honor to free his white neighbors from British tyranny only got around to finally freeing his slaves after he was dead and no longer had to suffer any inconvenience, neither material nor social.
4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Most of the Presidents we’ve discussed have really had it in for black people, but FDR was a hero to a great many African-Americans because he was, as he was for so many poor Americans, the first President to ever make a serious effort to improve their lives. Rural electrification, the Civilian Conservation Corp, the Works Progress Administration, almost all of the New Deal programs proved to be a boon to America’s struggling African-American population. Did it help them as much as white people? No. Did he desegregate the army when he had the chance? No. Did he support a landmark anti-lynching bill? No. But he did some small things to help African-Americans, and in a country as steeped in racism as America it was a pretty substantial change of course.
The people he didn’t care much for, though, were Japanese people. As we all know, in the wake of Pearl Harbor FDR issued Executive Order 9066 which ordered the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ethnicity, even those with American citizenship, for fear that they might be spies or partisans in waiting. The United States of America has done a lot of horrible, racist things in its time, but in the modern era the Japanese Internment may very well be the worst and FDR did it all himself. It wasn’t congress. It wasn’t the army. It wasn’t some governor. It was him. The executive order he issued over the strenuous and passionate objections of his wife. And what was gained by this flagrant act of racist fear? Nothing. Less than nothing. Japanese-Americans were so loyal to their country that even while they were interned, they never turned on it. In fact, the most highly decorated unit in WWII was a regiment of Japanese-American soldiers who — not trusted enough to fight in the Pacific — were shipped off to Europe to fight Hitler.
5. Harry S. Truman
In 1924, Harry Truman was briefly an initiated, dues-paying member of the Ku Klux Klan. His membership was short-lived, however, because the Klan’s rabid anti-Catholicism started putting him at odds with his Irish Catholic political patron. (Whoops.) So he quit.
6. Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln may have freed the slaves and won the Civil War, but did he really believe in the equality of African-Americans? This has been hotly debated, largely because Honest Abe could never give a straight answer on the question. Whenever Stephen Douglass put the question to Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Lincoln would always start off by denying that he believed in the equality of black people. Should they be allowed on juries? Should they be able to vote? Should they be able to hold public office? OF COURSE NOT! But then, as soon as he was done denying it, he would invariably go off on a long ramble about the subject that would end with a statement like the following from the Ottawa debate:
…I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.
But, you say, wouldn’t giving a black person all their natural rights under the Declaration of Independence entitle them to all their rights under the Constitution which would entitle them to be able to vote, hold office, and serve on juries? Yes. Yes, it would.
But it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that Lincoln could stand in front a crowd with two diametrically opposed viewpoints and present himself in such a way that the anti-slavery people would think him in agreement with them and the pro-slavery people think he wasn’t a threat to their white supremacy. They call that being a master politician. Also a liar.
On the question of whether or not white people should be allowed to vote, though, Barack Obama would probably be able to give you a straight answer.
7. Lyndon Johnson
To say that Lyndon Johnson was a racist would be impossible because, to be a racist, a person would have to believe in something — and Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing other than his own ambition. Still, in addition to bringing about the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and doing more to tear down the barriers between blacks and whites in America than any president since the gravely under-appreciated Ulysses S. Grant, he was also a man who delighted in the N-word. He was, in the words of Adam Serwer, a connoisseur of the N-word. He would even call the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a bill that he himself got passed, “the nigger bill” when talking to conservative segregationist Democrats. Or consider this passage from Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Johnson:
8. Thomas Jefferson
Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner. But, unlike George, he gave much more serious thought to the question of whether or not black people were actually people. His whole life he mulled over this idea. Were they equals? Were they of the same race? Was their race inferior by design or merely by happenstance? Did they have the intellectual capabilities necessary for citizenship? In the end, though, he seemed to come down pretty solidly on the side of No. African-Americans were innately incompetent when compared with whites. But, he wrote to the French Abolitionist Abbe Grégoire, that innate inferiority does not have any impact on their rights as human beings. They are, he said, if not as intelligent, intelligent enough.
Given he was a slave-owning plantation farmer in Virginia around 1800, that’s an opinion of above-average enlightenment when you consider most of his contemporaries took the animal-like inferiority of African-Americans as an obvious fact. Yet, again like Washington, he was paralyzed by his own privilege. Slavery, he concluded, should be abolished for it is the ruination of both blacks and whites. But except for two slaves related to him by blood, he freed no one. Not before he died. Not after he died. For all his philosophizing, for all his belief, for all his prattling on about the tree of liberty and tyrants, he did nothing. Flat nothing. Lifted no finger to help those who weren’t of his race for fear, he said, that it might spark violence.
9. Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt, for his own part, was pretty progressive when it came to the position of African-Americans and Jewish people in America. He awarded a number of African Americans small, but not insignificant, government posts, and appointed the first Jewish cabinet secretary in American history. But the Indians. Boy, oh, boy did he hate the Indians. From a speech he gave in 1886 in New York City:
You heard it here first: Teddy Roosevelt was in favor of committing genocide against the Native-Americans. Not even Dick Nixon would dare to say such a thing!
10. Woodrow Wilson
A hero to progressives during his administration and lionized by internationalists after his death, Woodrow Wilson is often ranked as one of America’s better presidents. But he was also above and away its most racist. Not so much because his feelings about black people were more vitriolic than his predecessors, but because, at a moment when the forces of racism in the world were beginning to ebb (if ever so slightly), he stridently attempted to roll back the tide of tolerance — and in doing so ultimately caused material hurt to millions in America and tens of millions of people around the world.
So what did he do?
One: While the President of Princeton College he openly refused to confirm any African Americans hired to be part of his university’s faculty. They had no place, whatever their merits as educators or janitors, at his elite institution.
Two: While he was President he openly sympathized with the Klu Klux Klan, blaming the general ignorance of black people and the “oppressiveness” of black-rule during Reconstruction for their rise of the klan, even going so far as to host a White House screening of the film Birth of a Nation, in which the knight-like founders of the Klan heroically save a southern state by killing a bunch of dastardly black people who were played by white people in blackface.
Three: Ever since the Civil War, the United States Federal government had been, at least on paper, racially integrated. Federal buildings didn’t have segregated bathrooms. The Civil Service examination did not ask you if you were black or white, only if you were good at delivering the mail. Yet the minute Woodrow Wilson set foot into office, he and his cabinet set about hoisting the same sort of Jim Crow segregation that plagued the South onto his own administration. Applicants for the postal service had to present IDs proving their whiteness, African-American candidates for even the most basic posts were excluded, and one of the few bastions of advancement open to African-Americans was abolished with a few pen strokes.
Four: At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference the Empire of Japan put forth a proposal that would declare all the races of the Earth equal. This proposal, of course, was quite controversial, with several of the delegations fearing it would impugn the blatantly racist power structures of their own nations and empires. Still, when it came time for a vote, the proposal passed with a clear majority. 11 of 17 voted in favor, 5 (including the US and Great Britain) abstained, and Belgium never bothered to show-up. Yet, even with that clear majority and no “committed” opposition, the committee chairman, Woodrow Wilson, personally vetoed the proposal over the objections of the Japanese and French, claiming that on such a controversial issue a “unanimous” vote was necessary.
Of course, the proposal would have been largely symbolic. Britain wouldn’t have left India. Japan itself certainly wouldn’t have abandoned its brutal hold over Korea. But this proposal would have made it substantially more awkward for nations like the US and the European colonial powers to justify their racist governance in places like Australia, Africa, Indochina, and the southern United States — their hypocrisy would have been laid bare. And the failure to embrace racial equality signaled to all the people around the world, looking to Paris in the hope that Wilson would save them from their colonial oppressors, that the President — for all his high-minded talk about self-determination — only meant self-determination for white people. This alienated everyone in Africa, South Asia, and East Asia. It drove the Japanese to increasing feats of imperialism and militarism to try and prove their “equality” with the western powers, and it pushed the young intellectuals of dozens of future nations away from Liberal Democracy and towards Communism, a doctrine with the intelligence to rhetorically embrace the idea of racial equality. Ho Chi Minh was one of these people. So were the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. All the wars in Vietnam, the civil war in China, the struggles of India, the nightmare of Africa, all of those hurricanes can be drawn back to the flapping, racist butterfly wings of Woodrow Wilson.
But, you know, that’s nothing compared to Barack Obama making some rich white guys feel vaguely bad about themselves for half-a-minute.
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