These Are the Most Racist Presidents (and Whether Donald Trump Makes the List)
Many Americans worry that Donald Trump has racist views. Those allegations get a little harder to deny each time the president makes a comment about “sh*thole countries” or refers to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” And don’t forget Trump’s failure to disavow the views of Neo-Nazis, his repeated attempts at enacting a “Muslim ban,” or his controversial pardon of Joe Arpaio.
But the truth is that Donald Trump is far from the only president to use bigoted language or to espouse racist views.
1. Thomas Jefferson
- 3rd president of the United States
The Huffington Post names Thomas Jefferson as one of the most racist American presidents. He may have said, “All men are created equal.” But he also characterized “the blacks [as] inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” And others used his ideas to rationalize slavery after the American Revolution.
Some people praise Jefferson for pushing Congress to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It’s true that the law “closed the door on the nation’s legal participation in the international slave trade.” But as the Post points out, the measure also “flung open the door on the domestic slave trade.”
Next: This president is responsible for the Monroe Doctrine.
2. James Monroe
- 5th president of the United States
The Post also puts James Monroe to the list of the most racist American presidents. The reason why? His namesake Monroe Doctrine. The document declared that “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” But the U.S. used the doctrine to justify intervention into Latin American states.
As the Post puts it, the “Monroe Doctrine was as racist and devastating to Latin American communities abroad as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was to indigenous communities at home.” Additionally, Monroe supported the formation of the American Colonization Society, and even seized a strip of West African land to colonize.
Next: This president waged war against Native Americans.
3. Andrew Jackson
- 7th president of the United States
Alternet nominates Andrew Jackson as one of the most evil (and racist) American presidents, pointing to his actions against Native Americans. Jackson “never met an Indian he liked or felt obliged to respect,” the publication explains. Historians report that Jackson “violated nearly every standard of justice” when he waged war on the Creek and Cherokee tribes to take their land. His troops killed huge numbers of Native Americans, including women and children.
“Long before ethnic cleansing became a term to describe the terrible war crime, Jackson perfected the practice,” Alternet reports. As president, he signed the Indian Removal Act. This law forced 46,000 Native Americans out of their homes and onto reservations in the western territories. Thousands died.
Next: This president is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Mexicans.
4. James Polk
- 11th president of the United States
Alternet reports that James Polk believed fervently in manifest destiny: the idea that the United States was fated to expand across the North American continent and acquire more land. Polk set a goal of securing the Oregon territory and acquiring the territories of California and New Mexico from Mexico, resorting to violence and betraying some racist biases in the process.
Alternet reports that Polk’s actions resulted “in the deaths of 25,000 Mexicans and the theft of most of southwest North America.” The United States won the two-year Mexican-American War, claiming Texas and buying the land that makes up California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Additionally, the war renewed a debate over the extension of slavery to new American territories. That debate eventually ignited the Civil War.
Next: This president didn’t take a stand against slavery.
5. James Buchanan
- 15th president of the United States
James Buchanan makes Alternet’s list of the most evil presidents not only because he sat idly by as tensions escalated between the North and the South, but also because he didn’t take a stand against the spread of slavery. In fact, Buchanan interfered in a Supreme Court case that eventually produced the Dred Scott decision: a ruling that determined that African-Americans couldn’t be American citizens.
The decision also stated that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in new federal territories. As Alternet explains, Buchanan “colluded with the Supreme Court to eliminate territorial barriers to slavery, opened the door to the expansion of the ‘peculiar institution’ [of slavery], and ultimately set the stage for the Civil War.”
Next: This president undermined Reconstruction.
6. Andrew Johnson
- 17th president of the United States
Andrew Johnson seems to have done everything within his power to undermine the Reconstruction of the South. Johnson technically supported the end of slavery. But he was still a white supremacist. He wrote in 1866, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
Alternet reports that in order to minimize the influence of newly freed slaves — and to prevent the redistribution of land to them — Johnson pardoned “all but the most egregious Confederates.” They quickly rose to power in government. There, they began passing “Black Codes” that made African-Americans second-class citizens. Johnson vetoed a civil rights bill that Congress passed. But Congress overturned his veto — and created the 14th Amendment.
Next: This president waged war on the Philippines.
7. William McKinley
- 25th president of the United States
Alternet argues that William McKinley should go down in history as one of the most evil American presidents. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, McKinley decided to annex the Philippines. But the Filipino people expected to become independent, as they’d fought with Spain for their independence prior to the war.
But McKinley thought the people “unfit for self-government.” He wanted to “uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” So he waged a brutal war against the Filipino “insurrection.” Tens of thousands of people died in combat. Hundreds of thousands more died from diseases contracted in the concentration camps where the U.S. held Filipino prisoners.
Next: This president supported the Ku Klux Klan.
8. Woodrow Wilson
- 28th president of the United States
The Huffington Post also counts Woodrow Wilson among the most racist presidents. The Atlantic reports that “The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.” As president, he oversaw segregation in federal offices. Wilson once even threw civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
The Post notes that Wilson backed what he characterized as the “great Ku Klux Klan.” He also championed the Klan’s violent disenfranchisement of southern African-Americans. Wilson refused to appoint Black ambassadors to Haiti or the Dominican Republic. And he began a two-decade U.S. occupation of Haiti. Plus, as the Post explains, “possibly most egregiously, at the Versailles Convention settling World War I in 1919, President Wilson effectively killed Japan’s proposal for a treaty recognizing racial equality, thus sustaining the life of European colonialism.”
Next: This president restricted immigration and damaged black communities.
9. Calvin Coolidge
- 30th president of the United States
The Huffington Post names Calvin Coolidge as one of the most racist American presidents. The publication cites Coolidge’s response to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 as one of his worst offenses. The government quickly assisted most white communities affected. But Coolidge flooded black communities to reduce pressure on the levees. Then, The Huffington Post explains, “thousands of displaced Blacks were forced to work for their rations under the gun of the National Guard and area planters, leading to a conflagration of mass beatings, lynchings, and rapes.”
Coolidge also signed what the Immigration Act of 1924, a racist law that restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It also restricted immigration of people from Africa. And it banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. Coolidge infamously stated at the time, “America must be kept American.”
Next: This president imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans.
10. Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 32nd president of the United States
Most people remember Franklin D. Roosevelt favorably. After all, he assumed office during the depths of the Great Depression and implemented the “New Deal.” However, Alternet names him as a runner-up on the list of the most evil American presidents. The reason why? His imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to concentration camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. As Vox reports, “Japanese American internment is almost universally considered one of the most egregious things the United States has done to an entire ethnic group.” It took a Supreme Court ruling to release the detainees, most of whom could read, write, and speak English, and only a fraction of whom had spent much time in Japan.
Next: This president had racist views toward many minorities.
11. Harry S. Truman
- 33rd president of the United States
The Los Angeles Times reports that though many Americans aren’t aware of Harry S. Truman’s anti-Semitic views, they don’t surprise historians who have studied his politics and policies. Truman made many private comments about Jews being “very, very selfish.” And also said he did care “how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs, or Greeks get murdered.”
Additionally, Truman wrote in a 1911 letter to his wife, “I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a n***er or a Chinaman.” And as the Times notes, “We’ll never know if Truman’s attitudes toward minorities — including his comment in 1911 to Bess that he hated ‘Japs’ — influenced his decision to drop two atomic bombs at a point when the Japanese were already militarily devastated and seeking acceptable surrender terms.”
Next: This president had racist views on segregation.
12. Dwight D. Eisenhower
- 34th president of the United States
Dwight D. Eisenhower also goes on the list of the most racist presidents thanks to his views on segregation. Newsweek reports that in 1954, Eisenhower told Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren that white Southerners “are not bad people.” He explained, while discussing the desegregation of schools, “All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”
Newsweek characterizes Eisenhower as “not particularly supportive of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision.” That decision found the racial segregation of schools unconstitutional, and Eisenhower didn’t sound pleased. He said after the ruling, “The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country; and I will obey.”
Next: This president opposed civil rights legislation during much of his career.
13. Lyndon B. Johnson
- 36th president of the United States
As Newsweek reports, Lyndon B. Johnson routinely used the N-word and referred to civil rights legislation as “n***er bills.” While Johnson gets credit for several civil right contributions — he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act — he spent much of his political career opposing civil rights legislation.
One biographer notes that during Johnson’s two decades in the U.S. Senate, he routinely used the phrase “n***er bill” to refer to civil rights legislation. And as The New York Times reports, Johnson’s “racial attitudes were mixed up beyond any possibility of our untangling them cleanly now.” Johnson reportedly defended appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court by saying, “Son, when I appoint a n***er to the court, I want everyone to know he’s a n***er,” referring to Marshall’s notoriety for his civil rights work.
Next: This president’s recorded conversations revealed many racist views.
14. Richard Nixon
- 37th president of the United States
Newsweek reports that Richard Nixon routinely referred to black Americans as “Negro bastards” who live like “dogs.” That revelation came courtesy of conversations recorded during Nixon’s time in the White House, when Nixon said many reprehensible things about black people, Jewish people, Mexicans, and others.One representative quote? Nixon was recorded saying:
I have the greatest affection for [blacks], but I know they’re not going to make it for 500 years. They aren’t. You know it, too. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal, they’re dishonest, but they do have some concept of family life. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like.
Further, a Nixon adviser later admitted that the administration took up the war on drugs to target the “antiwar left and black people.”
Next: This president’s racism damaged black communities.
15. Ronald Reagan
- 40th president of the United States
According to Newsweek, Ronald Reagan painted black women as “welfare queens.” During his 1976 presidential campaign, Reagan described a woman ultimately dubbed the “welfare queen” by the Chicago Tribune:
There’s a woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexistent deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps and welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.
Newsweek notes, “Reagan’s infamous story was based on the tale of a real person named Linda Taylor, a black woman from Chicago.” But Reagan racialized the debate over welfare in the U.S. That that continues to impact public perception as well as policy regarding welfare.
Next: How does Donald Trump compare?
16. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
Vice reports that Donald Trump’s comments about “sh*thole countries” were the most openly racist by a president in decades, according to historians. The New York Times reports that “Donald Trump has been obsessed with race for the entire time he has been a public figure,” even though he has proclaimed himself the “least racist person.”
As PBS reports, Trump’s history with race is “complicated.” He discriminated against minority renters (but opened a racially-inclusive private club at Mar-a-Lago). He attacked the legitimacy of the U.S.’s first black president and repeated falsehoods on minority and crime. And he famously promised to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. As PBS explains, The president’s “public record depicts a man who most often moves in one direction: overlooking racial sensitivity and concerns in the name of fighting ‘political correctness.'”
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