While W. E. B. Du Bois beat Booker T. Washington in their fight for political influence, the famous Black boxing champion Jack Johnson was busy knocking out the world’s best white boxers. Actually, racists have always used successful Black athletes to push the racist idea that are naturally aggressive, and Black people have always viewed Black athletes as representatives of the whole community. So, while Black people saw Johnson’s victories as wins against racism, white people saw him as a threat. They looked for a “Great White Hope” who could beat him. They chose the retired boxer James J. Jeffries, but he lost.
Jack Johnson was another “exceptional” Black person who Americans viewed as a representative for his entire race. So while W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were busy looking for ways that white and Black people could peacefully coexist, the American public—white and Black—was more focused on watching white and Black people fight for dominance. Or, more accurately, white people viewed the boxing matches as a fight between white and Black supremacy, while Black people viewed it as a fight between white supremacy and antiracism. They saw Jack Johnson’s victory as a win against white racism, not a win against white people. This dynamic also gets repeated throughout history: when Black people call for equality, white people think they’re calling for Black supremacy.
White people hated Jack Johnson for his ego and his flashy clothes, but they especially hated that he married a white woman. White men saw this as a threat. After he went on a road trip with a white woman, the government accused him of sex trafficking. For seven years, he lived in exile. Then, he returned to the U.S. and spent a year in jail.
Jack Johnson shows how racism and sexism are inseparable. Sexism is built into racism, and racism is built into sexism. White men’s identities often depend on their ability to control white women and have white children, while white women are often defined as weak and needing white men to protect them from non-white men. In fact, this shows that racism harms white women, too. Since racism and sexism are tied together, fighting one has to require fighting both. To be successful, Kendi and Reynolds assert, antiracists have to be feminists, and feminists have to be antiracists.
Meanwhile, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels were white America’s answer to Jack Johnson. In the novels, apes raise a white orphan boy in Africa and name him Tarzan (or “white skin”). Because Tarzan is white, he hunts and fights better than all the Africans. And when he grows up, he protects a white woman named Jane from them.
Readers are probably familiar with Tarzan—if not the novels, then the movies or plays. But they likely haven’t realized how its depictions of Africans are extremely racist and Tarzan is actually a white supremacist figure. This shows how the media spreads racist ideas—they’re built into popular culture. They’re so normalized that American children often grow up to believe them without even realizing it.