Don’t be surprised that Donald Trump is expressing enthusiasm about pardoning Jack Johnson, while Barack Obama ignored it.
The first black heavyweight champion was wrongfully imprisoned a century ago by racist authorities, who were outraged by his destruction of white boxers and his relationships with white women. In 2004, a group of people began seeking a pardon for Johnson, but they were rebuffed by then-presidents George W. Bush and Obama.
Now, President Trump is tweeting that he’s considering the idea. Here’s why a pardon is easier for Trump than Obama:
Exonerating Johnson would have opened Obama up to racial repercussions unique to the first black president. The boxer enjoyed rubbing white America’s face in his profligate habits with sex, money, cars, clothes and jewelry. At a time when black men were lynched for even looking at white women, Johnson not only flaunted his Caucasian companions, he viciously beat at least one of them.
Johnson’s lifestyle was like “the hip-hop culture of its day, widely associated with black criminality and black masculine pathology,” wrote American University history professor Theresa Runstedtler in her book on Johnson. Obama pardoning Johnson would have appeared to some people like pardoning Tupac Shakur or Bobby Shmurda. Black Americans, meanwhile, are more uncomfortable than whites with interracial unions.
Even though Johnson deserves to have his record posthumously cleansed, Obama was focused on clemency for living victims of mass incarceration polices, which disproportionately affect the black community.
Trump, meanwhile, was elected despite multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Pardoning a womanizer like Johnson doesn’t dent Trump’s image as much as it would have tarnished Obama’s (evidence that black folks still need to be twice as good to succeed).
Pardoning Johnson would send a valuable message to white America, which is Trump’s main constituency. “It helps us white people more than black people,” the filmmaker Ken Burns, who directed an illuminating Jack Johnson documentary, told me in 2016. “Black people don’t need this information [about racial injustice]. Black people know this already. It’s us white people who don’t know it.”
Finally, a pardon would provide Trump with an opportunity to do something, albeit symbolic, about racial injustice. Trump’s Justice Department is reviving the “tough on crime” policies that created the racially biased disaster of mass incarceration – the exact catastrophe that Obama tried to mitigate with both policy and his huge number of commuted sentences.
Overall, it’s a fitting irony that Trump is weighing a pardon Obama never chose to pursue.