The President’s Pardon of a Black Man Wasn’t About Justice

Trump’s other notable pardon was a racist sheriff. So what’s the deal?
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In pardoning Jack Johnson, we can surmise that Trump is seeking something in return from Black America.

Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images 

In the history of presidential pardons, this was a minor event. But in today’s political arena, it was large. An injustice has been undone. By President Trump.

Let’s wrap our heads around this one.

This week, Trump pardoned Jack Johnson, the late boxing champion who was convicted in a racially charged 1913 trial of transporting a woman across a state line for immoral purposes. The law he allegedly broke wasn’t even on the books at the time of the incident he was arrested for. Johnson was Black (the first Black heavyweight champ), the woman in question White, and the judge was future Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who has been credibly accused of helping perpetuate the color line in pro baseball.

There’s no reason that Johnson should not have been pardoned long ago, and every reason to wonder why the injustice of his conviction has stood for so long. And in this sense, it could be argued that Donald Trump has done something good.

That’s until you scratch the surface of this administration and consider the president’s motivations. We can judge his action by his past behavior: This was a “deal,” a transaction just the way he sees every other action in his lifetime: his personal life (for example, offering money to Karen McDougal after he slept with her), his businesses, and how he conducts himself in office.

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You see his transactional needs in his foreign policy maneuvers, with his obeisance to world leaders who flatter him, and, most recently, his “Dear Kim” letter canceling the planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, which reads more like the forlorn pining of a jilted lover (“please do not hesitate to call me or write”) than a diplomatic rebuke. Even in firing former FBI director James Comey, Trump comes across like someone who thinks the other side isn’t keeping up to the “deal” that only he seems to believe undergirds all government actions. (“ We had that thing, you know,” Comey reported he said.)

In pardoning Jack Johnson, we can surmise that Trump is seeking something in return from Black America. Perhaps he’s realized that his friendship with Kanye West doesn’t translate into universal adoration from people of color. In his eyes, his actions necessarily must translate into Black political support. “Look what I’m doing for you,” he seems to be saying. “Now let’s talk about what you’re going to do for me.”

I wouldn’t presume to speak for all Black Americans, but I find it unlikely this action will get him what he wants.

Many pardons are controversial.

For one, unless you follow boxing, Jack Johnson isn’t exactly a household name. If he really wanted the goodwill of Black America, he could pardon the people sitting in the American prison system right now due to convictions corrupted by racism. He could intervene to clean the water supply for Flint, Michigan. Or, he could recognize that it is Colin Kaepernick and his fellow football players taking a knee, not the NFL owners, who exemplify patriotism.

What is more, Trump’s other notable pardon was former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’d been convicted for refusing to abide by federal court orders to stop racially discriminatory policing.

The differences are pretty clear: Johnson was forced to live in exile after his conviction, and when he returned to the U.S., served prison time. Arpaio had yet to serve a single day of his sentence, and he’s now running for U.S. senator in Arizona. Considering the messages a pardon sends, Johnson’s had relatively minor implications, while Arpaio’s was a proclamation shouted from the rooftops directly at Trump’s far-right base. And more to the point, Arpaio’s pardoning also was transactional—it bought Trump credibility with the most extremist right-wingers to the exclusion of everyone else.

He sent the same dog-whistle message to the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, (“some very fine people”) and is doing so again with ICE agents now intentionally separating children from their families at the border.

Many pardons are controversial.

An injustice has been undone.

Republicans were so worked up when Bill Clinton pardoned a campaign donor, financier Marc Rich, that they held hearings to find out how to overturn it. George H.W. Bush caused a stir when he pardoned six members of Ronald Reagan’s administration, including two who were about to go to trial, caught up in the Iran-Contra affair. And, of course, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.

There’s a debate in the legal community as to the limits of presidential pardoning power, whether it’s absolute or just nearly so.

In April (so long ago in Trump Time), Trump pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney convicted of disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame, to take political revenge on her husband. The message with Libby’s pardon was clear, coming from a president whose campaign and administration is right now the subject of multiple investigations: Take care of me, and I will take care of you. That’s the deal.

So we can look at the pardon of Jack Johnson the way we look at other people that Trump has pardoned. For Johnson, who died in 1946, justice has come late, from the hands of a president who by any reasonable interpretation was not doing so in the name of justice or fairness.

But there it is anyway. An injustice has been undone.

Much as Trump’s bungling in North Korea nonetheless resulted in getting three American hostages released, in the case of Jack Johnson, Trump seems to have accidently done the right thing—whatever his reasons. That’s something I think we can accept.