Why Do Black Celebrities Cover for the Sins of Powerful White Politicians?

Rapper Kanye West, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.
Rapper Kanye West shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting in the Oval Office on October 11, 2018. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi author, wrote for the New York Times on the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War, “The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a ‘blunder,’ or even a ‘colossal mistake.’ It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated.”

On Thursday, Michelle Obama confirmed her part in these rehabilitation efforts. The former First Lady fielded questions on The Today Show about her affectionate relationship with former president George W. Bush. The two are often seated together at official events, most recently the funeral for Senator John McCain, where Bush famously handed Obama a cough drop.

“I love him to death,” Obama said of the former president. “He’s a wonderful man. He’s a funny man … Party doesn’t separate us. Color, gender, those sort of things don’t separate us.”

Expectations that Bush be held accountable for his policies apparently don’t separate them either. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the then-president dragged the U.S. into years of bloody conflict in the Middle East, throwing Iraq into chaos, exacerbating its ethnic divisions, and ushering in a wave of suicide bombings and civil warfare that eventually gave rise to ISIS. That his administration is responsible for upwards of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi deaths and those of 5,000 U.S. soldiers is an irreversible atrocity. Americans could have made him a national pariah. Instead, they have indulged his painting hobby and greeted him with applause on daytime TV shows.

Perhaps most strikingly, black celebrities, including Obama, have spurred reputational makeovers for Bush and other powerful white men without seeking so much as a public mea culpa. The dynamic is familiar, even at a time when men in politics and entertainment are being increasingly taken to task for their misdeeds: an impulse to skip reckoning and get straight to reconciliation.

A similar dynamic made headlines in Washington, D.C., the same day when Kanye West visited the White House for a sit-down with President Donald Trump.

“I love everyone,” West said, launching into a ten-minute monologue directed at the president, which veered in topic from Saturday Night Live to West’s bipolar disorder diagnosis to incarcerated drug kingpin Larry Hoover. “I love this guy right here,” he added, hugging a man who has repeatedly threatened to send federal law enforcement into Chicago, West’s notoriously and often brutally over-policed hometown.

Plenty have implored the rapper to reconsider his support. But he has refused and declined to acknowledge by name the violence of the president’s policies.

“I don’t agree with everything Trump does,” West tweeted. “I don’t agree 100% with anyone but myself.”

This form of gaslighting is familiar — not just the chumminess with an architect of mass violence but the lack of acknowledgment that harm has been done. In West’s and other cases, this is often accomplished by placing superficial commonalities over conduct. When asked by the Gainesville Sun about his affection for Strom Thurmond — the segregationist South Carolina senator who once urinated in a bucket so he could prolong a filibuster against a 1957 civil rights bill — James Brown pointed to their shared status as elder statesmen.

“[He’s] great for our country,” Brown said. “When the young whippersnappers get out of line, whether Democrat or Republican, an old man can walk up and say, ‘Wait a minute, son, it goes this way.’”

Brown is not alone.

“He’s keeping God in schools and that’s enough,” Muhammad Ali said in 1984, endorsing President Ronald Reagan — whose acceleration of the War on Drugs decimated a generation of black families. “I fell in love with him because he really talks about helping black people,” football legend and activist Jim Brown said in 2016 of Trump — who went on to praise “fine people” at a white supremacist rally and disparage “shithole” countries in Africa and the black Caribbean.

These endorsements are driven by a range of factors. Ali’s religiousness is one. Jim Brown’s belief in black advancement through economic self-reliance endeared Trump to him, according to scholar David Zirin. At best, West was drawn to Trump by an affinity for a fellow celebrity egocentrist — and at worst, a sincere belief that a white supremacist demagogue is good for America.

Michelle Obama’s proximity to the presidency sets her apart. President Barack Obama’s drone strikes killed hundreds of people, including civilians. In their concession that mass death is an occupational hazard, these experiences may align the former First Lady more closely with white men like Joe Biden — who is presenting Bush with the Liberty Medal for his “commitment to veterans” in November and whose son served in the U.S. military in Iraq — or the late McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam but became a hawk as a senator.

Such alliances are not a partisan phenomenon. Democrats have ushered in plenty of policies, like President Bill Clinton’s 1996 crime bill, that plunged vulnerable non-white communities into degradation. Nor is declining to challenge such power exclusive to black elites. If the Trump era has reinforced one lesson, it’s that white power coalesces to protect itself when threatened — rallying the poorest voter and wealthiest Cabinet billionaire alike regardless of, or often due to, the violence promised. Black people close to such power have historically played a role in speaking out against it — including the likes of Jim Brown and Ali. That some choose now to legitimize unaccountable white violence is an abdication of a timeworn struggle.

But beyond hugs and cough-drop exchanges, performances of cordiality over dead and broken bodies highlight Americans’ pathological need to forgive, forget, and move on no matter the cost. Black people are no exception. That we succumb too sheds light on how little recourse has traditionally been available. There were no Nuremberg-like trials for Jim Crow. Both the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War rushed to make nice once the fighting stopped — even as a brutal racial caste system was being erected around them. You can vote bad policymakers out, if they let you. But losing an election is a poor consequence for racial terrorism, unleashing high-casualty bombing campaigns, or holding migrant children in cages after wrenching them from their parents’ arms.

Michelle Obama and Bush occupy a social stratum apart from most Americans, such that a glamorous, beloved daughter of Chicago’s South Side and a once-reviled Republican scion from Texas could find more in common than their roots suggest — or, in Obama’s case, than she likely has with the communities she once called home. As such, it’s easy to understand the popular appeal of this friendship. Fond feelings between the two hearken to a time when partisanship felt less extreme. They push people to question whether we truly are as different as we seem.

But some Americans are sworn into public office, get away with killing, then recommence public life like it never happened. We are an “amnesiac citizenry,” Antoon writes — forgetful when we should reckon. We pay for catharsis with silence. And at continued cost to our claims of moral legitimacy, we persist in refusing to hold officials accountable for mass violence.

Why Black Celebrities Cover for Powerful White Politicians