When it comes to Donald Trump's racism -- whether his now-infamous "go back" tweet, his attack on Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and the city of Baltimore, his many uses of "infested" and "infestation" in relation to African-American neighborhoods, or his reference to African countries as "shitholes" -- don't for a second think that you're in a new world. You're actually in just about the oldest American world there is. When it comes to race, Donald Trump isn't breaking new American ground but very old ground in a particularly voluble and public way. Presidents with racist streaks have been a commonplace of our history from slave-owner George Washington on. They just didn't tend to speak on the subject quite so publicly.
In 1915, for instance, President Woodrow Wilson actually screened D.W. Griffith's silent movie, The Birth of a Nation (based on the novel The Clansman), a film that would almost singlehandedly breathe new life into the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House for his cabinet. President Lyndon Johnson not only called his regular driver "n-word" and "boy," but reportedly told two governors, regarding the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, "I'll have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years." As we learned just the other day, when he was governor of California in 1971, future president Ronald Reagan called then-President Richard Nixon to vent his frustration over African delegates at the U.N. voting against an American position on China. Secretly taped by Nixon, Reagan said, "To see those, those monkeys from those African countries -- damn them, they're still uncomfortable wearing shoes!" Nixon laughed and later called the same delegates "cannibals" in a conversation with Secretary of State William Rogers, not atypical of his own secretly taped thoughts.
And no one should be surprised that, in his racism, the president is also playing very directly to just where that base of his is right now. In recent polling, as Michael Tesler of the Washington Post reports, "the percentage of Republicans who consider the word ["n-word"] offensive or unacceptable has actually declined in recent years. As of 2018, only 33% of self-reported Trump voters said that it was racist for whites to use the n-word, compared to 86% of Clinton voters."
This, then, seems like a particularly appropriate moment for former New York Times sports columnist and TomDispatch regular Robert Lipsyte to revisit his experience as a young white man working with famed comedian Dick Gregory on his autobiography, n-word. Gregory, who died two years ago, had Donald Trump's number decades before he entered the Oval Office. Tom
When Comedian Dick Gregory Tried to Bust the Word
n-word, the Book, Never Overcame "n-word," the Slur
By Robert Lipsyte
One afternoon in New York City in the spring of 1964, I marched at the head of a small civil rights demonstration, one of the few white people in the group. I was carrying a watermelon. It was a Dick Gregory joke.
To say the least, not everyone liked that joke, but I thought it was hilarious, a jab by the hottest comedian in the country at one of the oldest racial stereotypes. Some of the black demonstrators in that little parade felt that Gregory's version of guerrilla theater (in which I was a bit player) diminished the seriousness of the occasion -- and they said so. Some of the white bystanders had another opinion entirely. In words that couldn't have been more blunt, they suggested I was a traitor to my race.
More than a half-century later, as Gregory's jokes and accomplishments are being revisited, that watermelon bit still seems brilliantly mocking to me. Yet it is also quaint, almost antediluvian, symbolic of a once-thrilling sense of progress. The current struggle against racism faces an orchestrated resistance led from the White House. The racists on the twenty-first-century sidewalk are emboldened, having found a malicious leader impervious to comedy. Too many others realized too late that Donald Trump was no joke after all. And now they're squabbling among themselves over such important but often diverting topics as cultural appropriation, white male privilege, and plain old bad taste -- instead of uniting to fight a truly dangerous enemy of equality and democracy.
n-word, the title of the book Greg (as most of us called him then) and I wrote together in that distant year (and his autobiography), is even more controversial than it was then and so is my own race. People question the appropriateness -- even the right -- of a white man to write about, as well as with, a black man. The book, published in 1964, has never been out of print and this year, for the first time, a trade paperback has been issued along with an audio version. A documentary, a feature film, and a formal biography are on their way, much of it thanks to the energy generated by Greg's son Christian, a Washington, D.C., chiropractor.
Greg, who died in 2017 at 84, is now gaining the full recognition he long deserved as a pioneer of political black comedy who sacrificed a superstar career on the ramparts of 1960s civil rights activism. In these last years, he's risen into the pantheon of America's most famous satirical commentators alongside Will Rogers and Mark Twain.
I met Greg on the evening of September 16, 1963. His publisher set up the appointment. He had signed a contract for a rats-to-riches autobiography to capitalize on his new fame as a comedian and then rejected every writer the publisher sent around. Nearing the bottom of the barrel, they came up with a 25-year-old New York Times sportswriter who, to be honest, was more interested in meeting this sudden sensation than actually writing a book involving the -- for me -- then-exotic worlds of comedy and racial politics.
When I arrived at his hotel suite that first time, Lillian, his wife, and Jim Sanders, his gag writer, told me he wasn't seeing anyone. But young and full of myself, I just barged into his room. He was on his bed, curled in a fetal position, clothed only in his underwear, crying. I sat down and asked him what was wrong.
He slowly rolled over and glared at me. "Don't you read the papers?"
"Sure," I said. "I work for one."