On Contempt for Black Women, Trump is America

By Tara Tutson and Jared Loggins

Army Sgt. La David Johnson was killed in an attack in Niger, the details of which have only become fuzzier. The president under normal circumstances more or less translates chaos and disaster into a public grief for which we all are compelled to feel, together. This is why the details of Trump’s phone call to Sgt. Johnson’s grieving widow, Myesha Johnson, are especially gruesome. The details show a painfully routine pattern.

“He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts,” Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson alleges him to have said, and that his own White House later confirmed. Trump, in rehearsing the tired script of contempt toward black women, revealed his hand when he questioned the truthfulness of Wilson, Johnson, and the other witnesses on the call. He had had a “very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from the beginning, without hesitation!” Their word against his, Trump seemed to reason. In a dangerous culture where black people are believed to experience less pain, where public opinion shows many Americans don’t think racism is that big of an issue even as black people say it is, where the believability of black women who experience sexual violence is called into question, how can we, the public, see Trump as doing nothing more than fulfilling the terms of an implicit contract? His contempt for Myesha Johnson is America’s contempt for black women.

Both CBS News and Washington Post ran stories fact-checking the versions of the encounter circulating in the news. WaPo took the additional step of informing its readers to take Wilson’s versions of the event with a grain of salt, as if to place the burden of truth on a White House that can hardly cast itself as basically functional let alone as ‘good Samaritans’.

The discrediting of black women as victims or witnesses of anything is unfortunately a public idiom. Both Johnson and Wilson may be the most current expression but these moments are so daily in their occurrence that it almost feels like a tradition. Jemele Hill rightly identifies Trump with his white supremacist tendencies only for his army of enablers to call for her firing as if she had committed an act of malpractice. The president, who in the past has expressed a fetish for suing people who tell him off, must have unwittingly found some truth in the claim as he always attacks the messenger rather than the charge itself.

Even before Trump, the idea of black women as credible witnesses of the worst in our country is a sentiment that hardly finds traction in moments where their voices come forth. Rachel Jeantel, the girlfriend of Trayvon Martin, spent days on the witness stand in 2012 having her credibility and intelligence challenged by defense attorneys who refused to believe her account of her slain boyfriend as profoundly gentle and human, and thus incapable of the crime he was being put on trial for. In a moment that equally expressed this disdain, Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of the slain Philando Castile, said she recorded footage of his shooting to “make sure if I died in front of my daughter that people would know the truth.” The injustice of these moments is that credibility regularly depends on one’s proximity to power. That the likes of Jeantel, Reynolds, and now Johnson found themselves contesting their pain so publicly in the face of power is what is so devastating about white supremacy. Black women often face humiliation and ridicule in order to be believed. This is perhaps what Malcolm X had in mind when he offered us the now-popular expression that black women are the most “unprotected” in the country.

Can we draw on the strength of public outrage at these injustices in order to undermine them? Some signs seem to suggest that we can. The #SayHerName campaign, started in 2015, expresses a story that extends much further into the past. At the center of that campaign is a question: what does it mean to believe black women as targets of police violence? It means that black women can become the face of all our narratives and protests. It also means that we find ways to generate care and concern in our everyday practices. Thought of in this way, #SayHerName also calls all of us to challenge the culture where men in power are able to decide that the stereotypes have truth, that the pain women experience is imagined, that the harm others inflict is a product of women’s own making. This could well be a moment to connect the everyday crime of unbelievability to the social justice movements that are defining our own time.

Johnson ended an interview with Good Morning America, recounting the spat with Trump, by telling the world she had “nothing to say” to him. This is more than enough in a world where black women have said enough about the indignities they face everyday.