4 Presidents Who Were Less Racist than You Might Think

Thoughts and Sources

Whenever you see a big, long, dense listicle like this, the question that comes to mind is always “Why does this exist?”

To answer that question, I’ve decided to leave some dangling ideas here at the end—some themes which kept sticking in my craw as I researched, wrote, and rewrote this long sprawl of a tale about Presidents who are either forgotten, misunderstood, or at least not wholly grasped by our collective cultural memory.

1. Presidents, like most people, are complicated. They contain multitudes. The question with political leaders in fact is rarely whether or not they were good or evil people. Almost all people, even the worst of people, are generally trying to do what they think is right and good. The question is whether or not they are right about what is good, and whether or not they actually achieved some measure of that good. There is not a single American President who I would dare to call evil. Not even Andrew Jackson (about whom an essay is forthcoming).  Instead, there are have only been Presidents that were misguided, or confused, or selfish, or failures.

2. When it comes to the fight for equality, for social justice, for the bettering of people’s lives, being right is not enough. We like to think of the Civil Rights movement as the moment when all Americans realized that the institutional oppression and discrimination of black people was wrong, but Americans—even the most powerful of Americans—had known that equality for African-Americans was morally essential since before the Civil War. They had believed in it, fought for it, screamed for it, even died for it, and yet accomplished nothing. Being right is easy, making things right is very hard. It requires a whole other skillset. One that’s nebulous and tortured and covered with the boils of compromise and manipulation. There’s something telling that the two men who united to bring Civil Rights to America were a laughably corrupt, election-stealing pathological liar and an adulterous plagiarist.

3. Even when you have the power to enforce what’s right, enforcing it doesn’t mean that things will stay right. Ulysses S. Grant had the power to enforce equality and he used it, and yet in his use of that power he sowed the seeds for equality’s own demise. What he should have done differently is hard to say, but if we want to build a lasting justice in the world, we have to build it with that longevity very much in mind. You cannot have, as I think Chairman Mao once said, revolution without reformation, without changing the very things which people value in life. Otherwise, your new society will slowly return to being the old. But you cannot force someone to reform their heart. You can only persuade them, coach them, trick them.

A few sources (in addition to those cited via hyperlink) that I found vital:

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 by Robert Caro

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands

A whole slew of essays by or published under the auspices of Ta-Nehesi Coates on Ulysses S. Grant.