Just Kidding? Racist Presidential Humor, From FDR to Trump

by Rafael Medoff

Twice in recent weeks, former president Donald Trump has made derogatory joking references to Asians. He is not the first president to have used racial or ethnic minorities as the butt of his jokes—and not the first to have avoided any serious political consequences for doing so.

In a September 30 tweet, Trump derided his own former Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan and is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as “his China loving wife, Coco Chow!” On November 11, Trump tweeted about Virginia Gov. Glen Youngkin, “Young Kin (now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?).”

Trump is not the first president or ex-president to have indulged in sophomoric racist humor. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were reported—after they left office—to have told jokes involving harsh ethnic stereotypes. Ronald Reagan was once caught in an “open mic” moment, joking about Italians and Irishmen. As a young man, Harry Truman once shared with his future wife a joke involving “a n—— and a Chinaman.” Woodrow Wilson, as president, was notorious for telling racist jokes about African-Americans, sometimes with a faux accent and occasionally in less-than-private settings such as Princeton University alumni dinners.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt hissed through his teeth in mocking imitation of Japanese speech patterns, in a 1942 conversation with the journalist Quentin Reynolds. That same year, FDR’s assistant, William Hassett, recorded in his diary a joke the president told him about the Japanese being the offspring of a Chinese emperor’s daughter and a baboon.

FDR also had a penchant for anti-Jewish “humor.” His grandson Curtis told Roosevelt biographer Geoffrey Ward that he recalled “hearing the president tell mildly anti-Semitic stories in the White House,” in which “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents.” FDR also once joked that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, in view of the baby’s “slightly Hebraic nose.”

At the Yalta conference in 1945, Roosevelt shared an “I don’t want them and you wouldn’t either”-type joke with Soviet leader Josef Stalin: when FDR mentioned he would soon be seeing Saudi Arabia’s king, Ibn Saud, Stalin asked Roosevelt if he intended to make any concessions to him; the president replied “that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the 6 million Jews in the United States.” 

That remark was recorded in the official transcript of the conversation, but the State Department suppressed it for several decades for fear it would harm Roosevelt’s image if the public knew what he said about Jews.

As public disapproval of racism has intensified over the years, there have been consequences—in a few instances—for telling racist jokes. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was forced out in 1976 after word leaked of a crude joke he told about African-Americans. In 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned after telling a harsh ethnic joke about “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”

However, the resignations of Butz and Watt were exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to consequences for public figures indulging in racist humor. Those who manage to avoid the prolonged glare of news media attention often are able to avoid paying a price for their bigoted words.

James Jones continued in his position as national security adviser in the Obama administration even after telling an unflattering joke about Jewish merchants in 2010. Rebecca Erbelding, a staff member at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (and adviser to the recent Ken Burns film on the Holocaust), has tweeted jokingly about the allegedly distinctive nature of Jews’ noses—not unlike FDR’s “joke” about “Hebraic noses”—but the museum has not required her to apologize.

“Just kidding” should not be an acceptable excuse when it comes to public figures making derogatory references to ethnic or racial minorities. There need to be meaningful consequences which will clearly establish that in contemporary American society, racist humor is no laughing matter.

(November 2022)