It wasn’t enough for Joe Biden to call President Donald Trump racist. On Wednesday, the presumptive Democratic nominee said Trump was the most racist president ever — in fact, he said Trump was the first racist American politician to win the presidency. This is a truly absurd claim to make about any modern politician, given America’s sad history with racism. Whatever you think about Donald Trump, he is nowhere near as racist as Woodrow Wilson, for example.
Biden apparently had a conniption because Trump refers to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” pushing back against Chinese propaganda claiming the virus originated in the U.S. The president may have taken this rhetoric too far, but Trump has also made it clear that he stands with Asian Americans and condemns the disgusting harassment some of them have faced during the pandemic.
While condemning Trump’s coronavirus rhetoric in a virtual chat with union members, Biden made an astonishing historically illiterate claim.
“What President Trump has done in his spreading of racist – the way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from – is absolutely sickening,” he said, USA Today reported. “No sitting president has ever done this. Never, never, never. No Republican president has done this. No Democratic president. We’ve had racists, and they’ve existed, they’ve tried to get elected president. He’s the first one that has.”
Is Trump racist?
Trump responded to Biden’s comments by defending his record. The president noted that his administration overhauled the criminal justice system, which Biden and former President Barack Obama did not accomplish, and spurred investment in urban areas. Trump noted that unemployment rates among nearly all groups of racial minorities were low “prior to the China plague coming in – floating in – coming into our country and really doing terrible things all over the world.”
“I’ve done more for black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said. “Nobody has even been close.”
Trump is a master of hyperbole, but his record for the black community is rather strong. In February 2017, the presidents of 100-plus Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) met with the president in the Oval Office. Trump welcomed rapper Kanye West to the White House. He has elevated black and brown Americans to high positions in government: naming Ben Carson to HUD; naming Ajit Pai chairman of the FCC; hiring Omarosa Manigault Newman in the White House (who said Trump wasn’t racist before she accused him of being racist); and many more.
Under Trump, the black unemployment rate reached its lowest point in 17 years. Trump celebrated the low unemployment rate in his second State of the Union address, but Democrats did not rise to clap for this great achievement. Voters have said Trump is better for young black Americans than former President Barack Obama. The president has received praise from many black Americans. Some leaders of HBCUs praised Trump as being “more responsive to our community” than Obama’s administration was. Robert Johnson, the first black billionaire, gave the president an “A+” on the economy.
While Trump’s claim about his record was clearly hyperbolic, Biden’s claim about Trump’s racism was patently absurd.
America’s racist presidents
Even if Donald Trump were a horrific racist — and I think his record demonstrates the opposite — he would not come close to many of America’s most notoriously racist presidents. In fact, by modern standards, almost every president before Gerald Ford was a racist of one stripe or another.
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president (also the founder of the Democratic Party), harbored deep-rooted racism and the belief that black people were biologically inferior to white people, even though he said that slavery violated the principles of the Founding.
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president and also a Democrat, signed unfair treaties to remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands and launched the “Trail of Tears.”
While slavery was by no means unique to America, the race-based slavery in the U.S. gave rise to pseudo-scientific theories of racism that denied black people equal human dignity. One of the worst examples of this comes from James Buchanan, a president whose actions and inactions helped inspire the Civil War shortly after he left office. Buchanan not only endorsed the disastrous and racist Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court ruling in 1857, but he actually lobbied the Court for it. That ruling held that black people were “inferior” and had no rights under the Constitution.
While Abraham Lincoln fought against the expansion of slavery before the Civil War and secured the abolition of slavery after it, he did not support “negro equality.” In his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln declared, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” He opposed giving black people the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to hold office, and the right to intermarry with whites.
The twentieth century provided some of the worst examples of presidential racism. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat and a pioneer of the Progressive movement, reintroduced racial segregation into the federal government and screened the pro-KKK film The Birth of a Nation in the White House.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrat founder of the New Deal (which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to emulate), forced Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans into internment camps on the theory that they would take up arms to support Japan in World War II. FDR was also the last president to serve before Harry Truman finally desegregated the military.
Although Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he opposed civil rights legislation for much of his political career. In fact, during the two decades he served in the U.S. Senate, he referred to civil rights legislation as “n***er bills.” He continued the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. and even authorized the tapping of phone conversations of Vietnamese friends of an associate of Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate in 1960 and 1968.
The Watergate Tapes revealed Richard Nixon’s bigoted views about black people and Jews. He complained about putting “more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls” and said that black people are “not going to make it for 500 years. They aren’t.” He said black people “live like a bunch of dogs.”
When discussing racist presidents, it is perhaps important to note that while no fewer than twelve presidents owned slaves during their lives, some of them appear not to have harbored racist views about black people.
George Washington, for instance, hoped for the abolition of slavery and “never embraced the racial arguments for black inferiority that Jefferson advanced,” according to historian Joseph Ellis. Other historians also agreed that “unlike Jefferson, Washington and [James] Madison rejected innate black inferiority.”
Most of America’s presidents were racist, although not all of them were. This should not invalidate the great good many of them achieved. The facts that Thomas Jefferson was a racist, owned slaves, and ripped up the Bible do not make the Declaration of Independence any less inspiring or important a document. The fact that Abraham Lincoln did not support civil rights does not detract from the fact that he freed the slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.
It is, however, patently absurd to suggest that none of these men were racist or to suggest that Donald Trump — flawed man that he is — is somehow more racist than Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, or Lyndon Johnson. Only a historical illiterate would suggest such a thing.
As for Joe Biden, his record is far from clean. He recently suggested that “you ain’t black” if you can consider voting for Trump. Taking black voters for granted like that is disgusting, yet this same man has the gall to say that Trump is the first ever racist president.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.