She demanded more from the president, a man who devalued black lives by ignoring the violence that threatened them. In anger, she indicted his administration for its indifference and a mindset corrupted by centuries of white supremacy. She then faced condemnation from those who believed her criticism of this nation’s chief executive had gone too far.
I’m not talking about Jemele Hill and President Trump. I’m talking about Ida B. Wells-Barnett and President William McKinley.
What’s happening to Hill, the sharp, engaging ESPN host targeted by Trump and twice suspended by the network for tweeting her opinions about the president and, more recently, NFL protests against racial injustice, isn’t new. This is straight out of a White House playbook dating back more than a century to Wells-Barnett, a pioneering African-American journalist and activist who was excoriated for challenging McKinley’s inaction on anti-lynching legislation.
Trump is just the latest president to use a black woman to score cheap political points.
In a tweet last month, Hill called Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself [with] other white supremacists.” Ever since, the president, who still hasn’t found time to recognize the deaths of four Green Berets killed this month during a mission in Niger, has been on a tear against Hill. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders even called Hill’s comment “a fireable offense.”
Trump is now blaming Hill for ESPN’s ratings “tanking,” although any slip is more likely due to shifting viewership patterns. Meanwhile, he’s pushing for a woman to lose her job because she hurt his feelings.
Straddling the American pressure points of race and gender, black women are perceived as angry, troublesome, and duplicitous. In his failed 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan first summoned the specter of the “welfare queen.” In fact, there was a Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who defrauded the government (and pretty much everyone else she met) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet in failing to mention her by name or as an outlier, Reagan fashioned Taylor into every white taxpayer’s nightmare — a lazy, scheming black woman thriving on the government’s dime. When Trump recently said that Puerto Ricans, in increasingly dire condition after Hurricane Maria, “want everything done for them,” he was again evoking the divisive notion of people of color abusing taxpayer money.
Such cynical ploys aren’t only the province of Republicans.
In his autobiography “My Life,” Bill Clinton all but admitted that he went after rapper Sister Souljah for her racially provocative comments during the 1992 Los Angeles riots because his “campaign had to regain momentum.” By attacking an African-American activist and showing he could be independent of his Democratic core, Clinton burnished his centrist glow for the swing voters he would need to propel him to the White House.
Even President Obama wasn’t immune to such cynical maneuvering. In 2010, Shirley Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department official, was abruptly fired after a conservative website falsely claimed she declined to help a struggling white farmer. With re-election on his mind, Obama was already skittish in matters of race; perhaps to prove he was not biased toward African-Americans, his administration humiliated Sherrod and kowtowed to right-wing race-baiting without knowing all the facts. The White House later apologized and asked Sherrod to return to her job. She declined.
Trump, of course, is all about that base. In attacking Hill, he is showing his supporters an execrable path to the American greatness they crave, one where women and African-Americans are kept in their place. The message is obvious — those who defy white male authority will be punished.
Yet if Trump paid attention, he would understand what McKinley, Clinton, and Obama were taught before him: Black women aren’t easily shook. You don’t survive in a nation that regards you with open hostility without learning to bend, but never break, in even the fiercest winds.
When Wells-Barnett faced down McKinley and his supporters in the early 20th century, she said, “We must do something for ourselves, and do it now.” Whatever the political machinations of this or any other administration, black women know there is no solace in silence, and that the time to do something for themselves and their communities is always now.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham