I laugh? Racist presidential humor, from FDR to Trump


Twice in the past few weeks, former President Donald Trump has made disparaging jokes at Asians. He is not the first president to use racial or ethnic minorities as the butt of his jokes – and not the first to avoid serious political consequences by doing so.

In a Sept. 30 tweet, Trump mocked his own former Transportation Secretary, Taiwan-born Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling her “his China-loving wife, Coco Chow!” On Nov. 11, Trump tweeted of Virginia Governor Glen Youngkin, “Young Kin (that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?).”

Trump is not the first president or ex-president to indulge in sophomore racist humor. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson reportedly told jokes containing harsh ethnic stereotypes after leaving office. Ronald Reagan, when he was president, was caught in an “open mic” moment, joking about the Irish and the Italians.

As a young man, Harry Truman once shared a joke with his future wife involving “a——and a Chinaman.” Woodrow Wilson, as president, was known for telling racist jokes about African Americans, sometimes with a fake accent, even at events such as Princeton University alumni dinners.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt hissed through his teeth mocking the imitation of Japanese speech patterns, during a 1942 conversation with journalist Quentin Reynolds. That same year, FDR’s aide William Hassett recorded in his diary a joke the President told him about the Japanese being the offspring of a Chinese emperor’s daughter and a baboon.

FDR also had a penchant for anti-Jewish “humor.” His grandson Curtis told Roosevelt biographer Geoffrey Ward that he remembered “hearing the president tell mildly anti-Semitic stories in the White House”, in which “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with strong accents”. FDR also once joked that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, given the baby’s “slightly Hebrew nose.”

At the Yalta conference in 1945, Roosevelt shared an “I don’t want them and you wouldn’t either” joke with Soviet leader Josef Stalin: when FDR mentioned he would see the king soon of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, Stalin asked Roosevelt if he intended to make concessions to him; the president replied “there was only one concession he thought he could offer and that was to give him the 6 million Jews in the United States”.

This remark was recorded in the official transcript of the conversation, but the State Department suppressed it for several decades for fear that it would damage Roosevelt’s image if the public knew what he was saying about the Jews.

As public disapproval of racism has intensified over the years, there have been consequences – in a few cases – for telling racist jokes. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was deported in 1976 after hearing about a crude joke he told about African Americans. In 1983, Home Secretary James Watt resigned after telling a harsh ethnic joke about “a black man, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”.

However, Butz and Watt’s resignations were the exception, not the rule, when it came to consequences for public figures engaging in racist humor. Those who manage to avoid the prolonged attention of the news media are often able to avoid paying the price for their bigoted words.

James Jones retained his position as national security adviser in the Obama administration even after telling an unflattering joke about Jewish merchants in 2010. Rebecca Erbelding, staff member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (and adviser to the recent Ken Burns Holocaust film), tweeted jokingly about the supposedly distinctive nature of Jewish noses — much like FDR’s “joke” about “Hebrew noses” — but the museum didn’t ask him to comment. excuse.

“Just kidding” should not be an acceptable excuse when it comes to public figures making derogatory references to ethnic or racial minorities. There must be meaningful consequences that will make it clear that in contemporary American society, racist humor is no laughing matter.


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