Much has been written about Donald Trump’s campaign against a grieving black Gold Star family and the ways in which it shows the administration’s disdain for black women. The sense that the president is particularly irritated by black women who dare to question or criticize him has long been evident, in Trump’s attitude toward former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the journalist April Ryan, and ESPN correspondent Jemele Hill. But what isn’t as clear-cut is the way that this disdain reverberates across all sectors of political and social life, a theme that has emerged in various stories over the past two weeks, including the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal and the announcement that Justin Timberlake would be returning to the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
In Trump’s case, it should have been simple—or at least as simple as calling the family of a dead soldier can ever be. The controversy began, as it often does with Trump, with an easily disproven lie. When reporters pressed him last Monday as to why he had failed to speak publicly about the killing of four Green Berets in Niger, Trump deflected by turning to his favorite rhetorical tactic: attacking the legacy of his predecessor. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate.”
His lie was immediately challenged by former Obama administration officials. Prodded as always by bad press rather than any sense of shame, the president finally called the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson a full twelve days after the fatal ambush. In the course of the phone conversation with Myeshia Johnson he told her that her husband “knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway” and reportedly did not refer to Sgt. Johnson by his name, referring to him as “your guy.” Present for the call were Johnson’s aunt and a family friend, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who both confirmed that the call left Johnson so shaken that she curled up into a fetal position, crying.
In response to hearing that they made the widow of a dead soldier cry, most people would have apologized. But Trump isn’t normal. Instead of showing any modicum of decency, he decided to pick a fight with three grieving black women, dragging his Chief of Staff John Kelly into a petty squabble that ended with the president effectively calling Johnson a liar and with Kelly making up a story that made Wilson look bad.
This almost casual contempt for black women is hardly limited to the White House. The day before Trump called Johnson, the actress Rose McGowan, who was prominently featured in The New York Times investigation that broke the Weinstein story, compared being called a woman with being called a nigger. In a now-deleted tweet, McGowan attempted to shame the late night host James Corden for trivializing Weinstein’s decades of abuse, but ended up erasing black women and co-opting a historically fraught word to illustrate an (inaccurate) point.
Notwithstanding the fact that it’s possible to be both black and a woman at the same time—to be called both a nigger and a bitch simultaneously—McGowan’s comment doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part and parcel with a rhetoric black women hear all too often, dating back to the nineteenth century, when the suffragette Susan B. Anthony stated that she would rather cut off her arm than “work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
McGowan could have owned up to her mistake, as she was attempting to make Corden do. Instead she blamed her lapse in judgment on a late-night joint and apologized to “anyone POC” who may have been offended—ignoring the fact that “nigger” is not a historical slur leveled against an undefined “people of color” but one bound up in this country’s painful history of anti-blackness. To erase black women from a narrative of sexual assault, when approximately 40 percent of black women report coercive sexual contact by the age of 18, is reckless.
It is even more remarkable when you consider that a few days later, Harvey Weinstein would take time out of his intensive one-week rehab to call Lupita Nyong’o a liar, after the actress published a detailed account in the Times of being harassed by Weinstein. Hers was the only individual account of alleged sexual misconduct that Weinstein chose to refute.
That same day, Trump was calling Representative Wilson “wacky” and asserting that she was “killing the Democratic Party.” This, only a few days after John Kelly called her an “empty barrel” and blatantly lied about a speech she had given two years prior. As Shaun King wrote for The Intercept, “What Kelly did followed a week in which the trusted words of black women were repeatedly called into question.”
A day after the veracity of Nyong’o and Wilson’s statements were challenged, Justin Timberlake was announced as the 2018 Super Bowl Halftime Show performer, “despite his part in the oft-remembered, nine-sixteenths-of-a-second-long ‘wardrobe malfunction’ of 2004,” as NPR put it. More than a decade later the moment is still painful to watch, not least because the ensuing outrage selectively targeted Jackson. In the weeks after “Nipplegate,” Viacom blacklisted Jackson; her songs were no longer played on MTV, VH1, or radio stations across the country. Media outlets selectively edited an apology interview CBS forced her to tape, making it seem as though the incident was a publicity stunt, rather than an accident. She was pressured to drop out of that year’s Grammys, where she had been slated to present a tribute to Luther Vandross.
In contrast, Timberlake emerged relatively unscathed, and by his own account he received only “ten percent of the blame” for an event that left Jackson as a symbol of America’s moral decline.
All of these seemingly disparate events point to the same conclusion that Toni Morrison came to more than 40 years ago in a New York Times column called “What a Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib”:
True the Black woman did the housework, the drudgery; true, she reared the children, often alone, but she did all of that while occupying a place on the job market, a place her mate could not get or which his pride would not let him accept. And she had nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may very well have invented herself.
In each of these instances black women have been excluded or attacked. In times of trouble they have nothing to fall back on, not even their ladyhood. As the Weinstein scandal continues to roil our culture, and amid a reckoning brought on by having a misogynist in the White House, we are starting to hear more demands that women be heard and believed, that they be hired to replace the predators in their workplaces. These demands have great force, but only as long as they do not come at the expense of black women.