In his new book, “Disloyal,” President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claims his former boss holds “a very low opinion of all black folks.” According to Cohen, the president once asked, “Tell me one country run by a black person that isn’t a s---hole.” Given his notorious personal hatred of his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump might include the United States, under Obama’s leadership, as one such country.
But Trump’s apparent disdain for Black political leaders goes far beyond his own feelings about Obama. The idea that Black people are unfit for leadership or policymaking has deep roots in American history. A product of proslavery thinking that justified the enslavement of millions of African-descended people in the United States for more than 300 years, the belief that Black people were intellectually and morally inferior became the sine qua non of the White supremacist backlash that toppled Reconstruction. The idea had a very specific goal: to replace efforts to extend political and civil rights to formerly enslaved people with campaigns to violently rescind them.
Justifications for slavery had long included the argument that Black people were incapable of taking care of themselves. Slavery’s apologists, including many of this country’s founders, presented enslaved people as childlike, at best, or just plain stupid. Either way, they argued Black people were not just unsuited for freedom, but also they benefited from the kind of care and instruction White enslavers ostensibly provided them.
In addition to arguing Black people were “dull and tasteless,” a sign of their intellectual inferiority, Thomas Jefferson also believed they were incapable of spousal or parental love and felt only the basest sexual desire. While Jefferson may have lamented slavery’s existence in the new American nation, saying it was like “holding a wolf by the ears,” his political successors, men like Vice President and Sen. John C. Calhoun, embraced slavery as the nation’s salvation. In 1837, a decade after Jefferson’s death, Calhoun declared slavery “a positive good” because it instilled in Black people a sense of Christian duty and discipline, along with other attributes he believed they lacked.
Samuel Cartwright, a Louisiana physician who relied on pseudoscientific “evidence” to argue for Black inferiority, wrote that Black people were “like children [who] require government in everything … or they will run into excesses.” According to Cartwright, who relied on now debunked phrenological studies popular in the 19th century, Black people suffered a “deficiency of cerebral matter” that left them incapable of independent thought and prone to a host of bad behaviors, such as lying, stealing and running away from their enslavers.
Ideas such as these formed the foundation of proslavery ideology in the years before the Civil War.