Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented Mary Hamilton in the Alabama Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1963, a 28-year-old black woman named Mary Hamilton was arrested for nonviolent protest. She was brought before an Alabama court, hardly a friendly environment for a young civil rights activist. But as she stood before the judge, she stood firm to her commitment to equal dignity: She refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions until he called her “Miss Hamilton,” as he would any white female defendant.
It was a brave stand and an important one. In 1964, the Supreme Court reversed Hamilton’s conviction for contempt of court in a little-noted landmark decision.
I have been thinking about Hamilton over the past few days as I’ve watched President Trump attack black female journalists. Trump’s vicious and public insults of black female professionals should remind us that black women have long had to fight for respect and dignity and against demeaning and ugly stereotypes in the public space. As Hamilton demonstrated, this was a signature struggle of the civil rights movement; we need to keep that context in mind when Trump demeans black women he regards as his opponents.
Trump’s hostility toward black female journalists flared up last week in a news conference he called the day after the election. It was clear he was shaken by Democrats’ victory in the House and spoiling for a fight. He fought with CNN’s Jim Acosta, whom he called “rude.” He told NBC’s Peter Alexander that he didn’t much like him, either.
But his engagement with PBS journalist Yamiche Alcindor was particularly alarming, perhaps because of the mild and respectful manner in which she asked a question about the president’s embrace of language that some say emboldens white supremacists. Wagging a finger at Alcindor, the president accused her of asking “a racist question.” The next day, he accused CNN’s Abby Phillip of asking a “stupid question” and added, “but I watch you a lot, and you ask a lot of stupid questions.” He then called American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent and CNN contributor April Ryan, whom he had commanded to “sit down” when she stood to ask a question in the briefing the day before, a “loser.”
Trump’s flagrant hostility toward black women extends beyond members of the press. At his rallies, he regularly calls Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, “low-IQ.” Many former aides have angered Trump by what he regards as betrayal, but only Omarosa Manigault Newman has been called a “dog” by the president.
Of course, Trump is not the first to denigrate black women for political gain. President Ronald Reagan popularized the myth of the “welfare queen,” shaping for decades the public’s response to the struggles of tens of thousands of poor, black mothers. It was such an effective insult, implying both laziness and entitlement, that conservatives repurposed it for other uses, including calling civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier “quota queen” in an attempt to derail her 1993 confirmation as assistant attorney general for civil rights.
His attacks are often delivered personally as he talks over his target, steps toward her and wags a finger in contempt. He uses multiple platforms, following in-person insults with tweets. His attacks are often accompanied by an invitation for others to explicitly or silently join in at his frenzied rallies.
We ignore the president’s harsh attacks on black women at our peril. First, there are costs to the physical safety of these women and their families, given the overheated political climate of this moment. Further, we betray our ideals when we allow the most powerful man in the world to unravel decades of progress that black women have battled for in the public space. When the president chooses to call prominent black women or journalists “stupid,” we black women feel it.
Each of the accomplished women Trump attacked last week knows who she is and understands the president’s limitations. That is why Alcindor was so prepared to handle such an ugly moment with the president. Every black professional woman arms herself against the stereotypes that too often influence how society sees and evaluates her. In fact, that’s one of our superpowers: defying expectations.
But these attacks are wounding nevertheless. The ability to manage a dignified response to a brutal attack does not make the attack any less shameful. The fact that these women must arm themselves against this attack by the president of the United States should alarm us all.
The president, who repeatedly insists that we respect the office of the presidency, must first do so himself. When he speaks, he speaks in our name — whether we agree with him or not. And when he speaks, he gives license to others — in offices, factories, universities and workplaces all over the country — to follow his example. We cannot become numb to this brutality.