Long before Joe Biden became the putative 2020 presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, fears were intermittently expressed that he might make some major gaffe that betrayed ignorance, forgetfulness, or insensitivity on some key point of fact or policy. This remark, as reported by the Washington Post, is, in my opinion, a pretty big gaffe, though Donald Trump is in no position to exploit it:
[D]uring a virtual town hall organized by the Service Employees International Union after a health-care worker expressed concern that Trump continues to blame Asians for the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden signaled that he shared the questioner’s concern that Trump frequently refers to the pandemic as the “China virus,” saying, “the way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from, is absolutely sickening.”
“No sitting president has ever done this,” Biden said. “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.”
Now to be sure, there are varying definitions of “racist.” By some of the broader ones, in which willful indifference to racial injustice qualifies, nearly all U.S. presidents have been racist to one degree or another (though let’s give Barack Obama, the relentless target of racist abuse, a pass). But even by the narrowest definition, such as conscious belief in the superiority of the dominant white race and/or the inferiority of others — or cementing those foul ideas with the deliberate pursuit of policies designed to promote racist ends — the list of racist presidents is still very extensive. You could start with the 12 who owned slaves, including ten of the first 12 presidents — all but John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. The last slave-owning president, Ulysses S. Grant, was the only one to emancipate his own slave before the Civil War in which his armies helped crush the Confederacy. That, and the fact that he was the only president to aggressively pursue Reconstruction and defend Black officeholders in the South, should probably count as some level of penance for his sins.
The Democratic Party was officially racist in its early years, with arch-racist Andrew Jackson (Trump’s favorite predecessor), who exhibited lethal hostility to Native Americans as well as Blacks, setting the tone. Yes, some northern Democrats defected and formed the Free Soil Party in 1848 to protest the extension of slavery into the territories (and ran former slaveholder Martin Van Buren as their candidate), and others joined the new Republican Party and in fact tended to become pro-Reconstruction Radical Republicans after the Civil War. But after that war, Democrats were more or less a racist national party until at least 1920, when the virulent racist James B. Cox won the nomination to succeed the even more virulently racist Woodrow Wilson, who distinguished himself by segregating the federal civil service.
Republicans were hardly innocent of racism, either. As anyone familiar with the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln knows, he frequently proclaimed the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Black race, though he insisted all male Americans should enjoy equal constitutional rights. Later Republican presidents waxed and waned in their commitment to those equal rights, but in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century, Republicans harbored all sorts of racist attitudes toward Asian-American and even European-American immigrants. They weren’t exactly crusaders for Black equality, either, as evidenced by the complicity of Calvin Coolidge and his successor, Herbert Hoover (then secretary of Commerce), in the abandonment of Black citizens engulfed by the Great Flood of 1927.
Some presidents are difficult to judge. FDR (the racist Cox’s running mate in 1920) introduced a variety of social programs that benefited Black citizens enormously, and initiated their transition from loyal supporters of the Party of Lincoln to becoming members of the New Deal coalition. But he accepted Jim Crow throughout his presidency, and notoriously was involved in the internment of Japanese-Americans in California during World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower flirted with southern racists early in his presidency, but later did become the first president to use the power of the federal government to enforce school desegregation.
We’ve had ex-racist presidents who atoned for their sins. Harry Truman is alleged to have been an ally (and possibly a member) of the Ku Klux Klan early in his career. But as president he desegregated the armed forces, banned discrimination in the civil service, and risked his presidency by deliberately alienating southern racists. Lyndon Johnson, who arguably did more for civil rights than any other president, was for years a member of Richard Russell’s southern coalition in the Senate, which fought civil rights legislation like the devil. Jimmy Carter was a state legislator in the final days of Jim Crow and arguably condoned racist tactics in his successful gubernatorial campaign of 1970, before becoming the favored Democratic presidential candidate of civil rights leaders in 1976.
Conversely, we’ve had presidents who showed no apparent antipathy to racial minorities but who cynically deployed racist dog whistles and arguably racist policies in office — notably Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both of the presidents Bush.
Who was the most racist president? If you factor in both personal racial animus and racist policies that mattered, the front-runner for that dubious distinction was a president with a foot in both major parties, Andrew Johnson. The 17th president was a Democrat before the Civil War and after he left the presidency, barely escaping removal from office in an impeachment trial. But he rose to the presidency via a coalition ticket with Lincoln in 1864. Johnson was a thoroughgoing racist who viewed Black ex-slaves as the feckless puppets of the white plantation owners he hated just as much. And he did everything within his power as president to negate the gains for freedom and equality won by Union soldiers Black and white.
At least one presidential historian, Jon Meacham, suggested after Trump’s attacks on the minority congressional Squad that he was in the same company as the first President Johnson, as The Hill reported:
“What the president’s done here is yet again, because I think he did it after Charlottesville, and I think he did it frankly when he was pushing the birther lie about President Obama, is he has joined Andrew Johnson as the most racist president in American history,” Meacham, who has written biographies on past presidents Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush, said on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”
It’s a high bar Meacham set, but perhaps Biden should press that claim rather than making it sound like Trump invented presidential racism.