The casual news watcher could be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump has been broadening his scope of understanding of racial issues with the pardons of Alice Marie Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, and his announced desire to pardon Muhammad Ali (despite the fact that Ali does not require one even posthumously.)
But as with all things Trump, giving him the benefit of the doubt would be in error. This is particularly true in matters of race.
Trump has become enamored of his pardon power, in large part because it’s one of the few presidential actions that is both simple enough for a child to understand, and can be wielded in unitary and arbitrary fashion by the chief executive. Until very recently, Trump has seen fit to use it solely for the purpose of rewarding figures dearest to the farthest wing of ultra-conservative racist politics, as was the case with the pardons of disgraced sheriff Joe Arpaio and even more degraded author Dinesh D’Souza. It is widely speculated that Trump is also wielding his pardons as a signal to his lieutenants in trouble with the Mueller probe to avoid turning state’s evidence under the expectation that they will be able to expect a presidential pardon at some point in the future.
So why reverse course with pardons of mostly high-profile African-Americans?
Well, it’s partly simply a matter of celebrity. Trump has always been obsessed with celebrity, and it has forever grated on him that prominent figures in elite social and celebrity circles don’t fully embrace him and treat him as an equal. So when Sylvester Stallone reaches out to him about pardoning a hundred-year-old case against a long-dead boxer, or Kim Kardashian makes a request on behalf of a woman whose pardon won’t dramatically upset his base, he is seemingly eager to please.
To be clear, the pardons of Jack Johnson and especially Alice Johnson are unequivocally good things on their merits. Both cases involved travesties of justice. But I would argue that there is also a more disturbing element at play here.
Certain elements of the right have been in a veritable tizzy ever since Kanye West started bizarrely praising Trump in general terms, asserting that they both have “dragon energy” and what not. Some conservatives feel that Kanye’s bromance with Trump might become a pathway to gaining ground with African-American voters. In this context, it is not surprising that Trump met with Mr. West’s spouse Kim Kardashian and granted her clemency request on behalf of Ms. Johnson, nor is it a shock that Trump would be looking for other easy pardons of high-profile African-American celebrities.
In order not to see themselves as the villains of an American story in which people of color (and especially African-Americans) vote against them as a near-unified bloc, conservatives tell themselves that people of color lack agency in their votes. They insist that Democrats are denying people of color their freedom by voting for generous social policies. In the conservative mythos, slaveholding and Jim Crow Democrats simply substituted the chains of government handouts for those of the Dixiecrats and Confederates.
The silliness and self-serving audacity and hypocrisy of these arguments need little exposition here. What’s important is that in making this case, conservatives have essentially denied agency and basic intelligence to voters of color. In attempting to absolve themselves of racism and and explain away the disgust that most people of color have for the Republican Party, they harbor the inherently racist assumption that voters of color are too intellectually lazy and too easily swayed by “free handouts” to understand what’s really good for them. The corollary is that voters of color simply vote however key leaders tell them to vote, including high-profile celebrities, actors and sports figures.
Which brings us again to Trump’s pardons. Trump seems to believe that the endorsement of Kanye West will lead to a big bump in African-American support despite his plowing ahead at full throttle toward racist policies. In reality, all it has done is greatly diminish the stature of Mr. West in the eyes of the black community. It is likely that the president believes that if enough prominent black celebrities are pleased or placated by one-at-a-time personal interventions without structural significance to the daily struggles of millions of people of color in America, that suddenly the political conversation will shift and Republicans will win minority support and loyalty.
These are infantilizing and inherently prejudiced assumptions that fail to take into account that people of color tend to have a sophisticated understanding of exactly which parties and politicians act in their best interests, and which ones do not. A celebrity advocate or pardon here or there doesn’t make any difference, any more than a few token conservative politicians do. No one is fooled except for the conservative base and the president who advocates solely on their behalf. If conservatives and their leaders want to truly turn the page on racial issues, it will take real structural and legislative commitments to right decades of gross injustices–and that’s not something the Republican base is willing to tolerate, or it wouldn’t have nominated Donald Trump in the first place.