President Obama: Jack Johnson Punched Back

In a recent monologue, Bill Maher said that the United States has two main political parties: one party on the center-right: the Democrats, and one party in a mental institution: the Republicans. Frankly, his comment insults those who receive care at psychiatric facilities; at least they are looking for help.


The Republicans, however, proudly soak in their own bile, every week dishing out a new dollop of reaction. Last week, their national embarrassment was the Republican Congresswoman from Topeka, Kansas, Lynn Jenkins. At a town meeting, Jenkins called for a "great white hope" to emerge from the Republican Party to defeat Barack Obama’s agenda. Let this sink in: in front of a small crowd of rabid supporters in Topeka, already in full froth about “death panels,” she called for a “great white hope.” Her examples of “great white hopes” were congressmen like Eric Cantor and Steve Ryan, both of whom are, among other things, white. Later, her spokesperson Mary Geiger may have made it worse by saying, "There may be some misunderstanding there when she talked about the great white hope. What she meant by it is they have a bright future. They're bright lights within the party.”


Yes, white is “bright” while Obama brings the “darkness.”


Team Obama, per their usual posture on the nuts of August, refused to stand up to this racist idiocy. His spokesperson Bill Burton said, “We obviously give Congressman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt." This has become the Obama administration m.o.: take a right hook to the face and just smile through your bloodied teeth.


Jenkins has since said she was “unaware of any negative connotation” and is sorry if anyone was offended. One thing is certain: if she did know the actual, unvarnished history of the phrase “great white hope,” Jenkins may have chosen her words carefully. "Great white hopes” tend to get knocked into next week.


The yearning for a “great white hope” emerged when African American boxer, Jack Johnson became the first heavyweight champ with black skin in 1908. The media  brayed for a "a great white hope" (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world—and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries, the Eric Cantor of the boxing world, was urged out of retirement to challenge Johnson, saying, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."


Johnson didn’t give Jeffries, the press, or anyone else the benefit of the doubt. In a July 4th, 1910, Philadelphia Inquirer story titled, "Johnson Believes He's Jeff's Master," he is quoted as saying,  "I honestly believe that in pugilism I am Jeffries' master, and it is my purpose to demonstrate this in the most decisive way possible....  The tap of the gong will be music to me." To call himself Jeffries’ master, when people born as slaves and masters still lived throughout the United States, was verbal TNT.


The fight itself was the ugliest public display this side of a Topeka town meeting. As David Remnick wrote in King of the World, the ringside band played a song called, "All coons look alike to me," and crowds of whites chanted "kill the nigger." But Johnson, employing a highly cerebral defensive style, toyed with Jeffries, and made easy work of the winded former champion. In an early incarnation of the information superhighway, young children working as "telegram runners" ran through urban environs after every round, shouting out the progress.


The failure of the "white hope" caused—it is no exaggeration to say—a deep and abiding crisis in the media and white society. "That Mr. Johnson should so lightly and carelessly punch the head of Mr. Jeffries," wrote the New York World, "must come as a shock to every devoted believer in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race."


Violent race riots exploded around the country when Jeffries finally hit the mat. Their character involved mobs of whites attempting to enter black urban neighborhoods, and being repelled.


After the smoke cleared, 151 African Americans were dead. It was the most national urban uprising that the U.S. would see until the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. The backlash against boxing was immediate and intense. Congress even debating the banning of boxing altogether. All of a sudden, the violent, manly sport was pure sin.

Johnson was implored by Booker T. Washington among others to condemn the rioting. He refused. His defiance led to being prosecuted on Mann Act charges of white slavery (taking a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes.) The charges were so baseless that the US House of Representatives recently voted to exonerate Johnson posthumously. Incidentally, this vote gives lie to Jenkins' claim of being ignorant of the history. Either that or she didn't read the bill. But with every arrow Johnson took, in the eyes of the black community, he was becoming folklore.


In the words of one spiritual:


Amaze an' Grace, how sweet it sounds, Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down.

Jim Jeffries jumped up an' hit Jack on the chin, An' then Jack knocked him down again.

The Yankees hold the play, The white man pulls the trigger;

But it make no difference what the white man say, The world champion's still a nigger.


The great W.E.B. DuBois wrote the following about Johnson in 1914:


"Why then this thrill of national disgust?...It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness."


These words could be said about much of the "town hall right's" opposition to Obama today.


If there are disagreements with any part of the Obama agenda, we should shout them from the rooftops.. But for far too many in the confederate confines of the Republican Party—including those in elected office—opposition to Obama begins with the very color of his skin. Perhaps President Obama – and Rep. Lynn Jenkins – should remember: Jack Johnson fought back.

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Re: Recycled and Tired

Wow, Zirin has written about Jack Johnson twice in almost five years. That's pretty conclusive proof that he's running short of ideas. Just you wait, he'll be writing about racism again before you know it. Hasn't he heard that we're living in a post-racial era?

And they are supposed to do what?

I mean what is it that would be gained by making this a central part of the administration strategy?

I am not that happy with the lack of progress the administration has made so far and they have taken some pretty chilling civil liberties stances, but do we really think that the best thing to do right now is hold a press conference on how Lynn Jenkins is a racist?

It seems like "hitting back" in the sense of going after Jenkins doesn't accomplish that much. It gets the White House bogged down in a debate with some no name member of congress, lets the right wing blogs go on about how Obama is over sensitive and doesn't really bring much in terms of moving the middle.

Maybe I am wrong but what does it accomplish other than make us feel good about hitting back?

Why "Play the Racism Card"?

Because as long as a nutjob U.S. Congresswoman can say she wishes for "a great white hope," there is racism in this country -- in the halls of power, no less.

Because as long as nutjobs such as certain commenters on this blog can try to sweep it under the rug (nothing to see here, move on), there will always be racism in this country.

Because racism is woven into the very fabric of this country, and until it goes away -- if it ever does -- it will never be "tired." It will be what it always is -- disgusting, hateful racism.

Dave Zirin know all this, and her writes about it with clarity, consistency, authority, and conviction. If Lynn Jenkins wasn't a mealy-mouthed fool, she's get on the phone and call Dave and say, "Thank you. I didn't realize the powerful, racist subtext of my careless remarks. I apologize, and I promise I will be sure to check with you the next time I go to open my mouth."

Of course, that's about as likely to happen as Barack Obama actually confronting this country's racist legacy, instead of running from it, but honestly, I'm not surprised. The first African American President was elected because he made himself as white as can be.

Now he gets it going and coming -- but he's got no one to blame but his "post-racial" self (h/t to Phil).


Sorry, Dave, that should say, "he writes" (and "she'd get on the phone"). Momentary dyslexia.

I didn't say it shouldn't be talked about

It should be and has been on this blog and others. Of course Jenkins is a racist and should be called on it.

But that is a different question from whether the White House should respond. There may be a moral reason that the White House should engage Jenkins and take on the weight of that work. There may be a strategic reason they should let other media avenues deal with her and not get into that fight. That's the question I was saying that also needs to be answered before we condemn the White House for not responding.

Apologist Position Filled

The "Help Wanted" ads placed by the Obama White House for official apologists was filled months ago. There's no need for you to continue auditioning for the position.

Apologist Post Not Wanted


I am not an apologist for them. The Obama Administration has disappointed me in about a million different ways (war on terror, gay and lesbian rights, sotomayor, tarp, and on and on). If you noticed, I said that in my first post.
Then again, he wasn't someone who I thought was that liberal to begin with.

But hey, if it makes you feel more righteous, then by all means feel free to misread the post and respond with snarky comments.


Rep. Jenkins' comment wasn't the first blow in the racism battle, only the latest. President Obama delivered the biggest blow by winning the White House in the first place. Rep. Jenkins' response is like trying to bite him on the ear, an act of desperation when you're getting your a$$ whipped. President Obama knows the way to fight back is to keep winning and keep pushing his agenda. Don't get thrown off track. People like you can handle educating and exposing the fools.

fight back?

The president needs to drop his 'bi-partisanship' mantra & commence a real fight back before all of his credibility tanks with his numbers. Good column Dave.

Who to speak out against racism if not Obama?

It is not enough for Obama to symbolically challenge racism. His administration's quiet on such issues, or retreat in the case of his initial comments after the Henry Louis Gates profiling case, implicitly acknowledges and legitimizes racism in this country.

We are fed "bi-partisanship", work for national unity soundbites. But the 'astroturf', corporate sponsored far right of the Republican party that we see plastered all over the news doesn't want unity, they want a white, heteronormative, native, Christian and conservative America. By constantly calling for unity in the face of bigotry, the administration is ceding to their argument.

We're told that Obama has more important things to worry about. For God's sake, don't harp on this secondary issue, this 'distraction' of endemic racism. Just think of how that might cut into the Ted Kennedy coverage.

But if the first black president won't stand up to racism, who will? Obama owes it, not to himself, not just to minorities is the US, but to everyone who voted for him because they are against bigotry, to call a spade a spade. He did it on the campaign trail, I'm still waiting to see him do it in the White House without backtracking under political pressure from the right.

In your own words, please...

I think Tornado (aka the token right wing, "I'm gonna discredit you" guy on this blog) is a little confused. You can't plagiarize yourself. Dave, I suppose next time you might want to rephrase.

Original: "Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back."

Modified: "A majority of the riots entailed pasty, violent groups of thugs accosting African-Americans, and African-Americans returning the hostility" (You can use that one Dave)

Tornado preferred: "Blacks get violent in racially motivated melee!!!"

Ah trolls

Like I said, when you have your own trolls it proves you've made it.

But we should be clear: the reason why he or she spends the time to see if I have "plagiarized from myself" is because he stands against the idea that racism should be fought or even challenged. It says something positive through that he/she lacks the courage of their convictions to state their name openly. The web has become the new white sheet for many.

Recycling Fraud

Actually it is a form of intellectual fraud:

On the Internet Humanist Forum, professor Paul Brian of the University of Montreal argued that "self-plagiarism," or the recycling of an old work in a new guise, "is also a theft since the author leads the book-buyer to think that there is a new book of his on the market. The author is misleading his/her readers: to me, it is just the same thing as to sell a secondhand car while claiming it's a brand new one" (The Humanist Forum 7/13, 16 April 1992). Perhaps a better analogy is the used car dealer who changes a car's odometer to make it appear much less used than it really is. Such a practice is recognized to be illegal. So too "self-plagiarism" is fraud if not outright theaft (Brogan 1992:453-465). To avoid confusion here perhaps it is better to drop the term "self-plagiarism" and simply call it recycling fraud.

Professor Irving Hexham, Academic Plagiarism Defined (2005)

Fair enough

Fair enough, Riley. I reused a couple sentences. It was dine without malice. I will rewrite and Repost.

re: rewrite

You should not have to re-write sheit....

These are your words, on a free of cost blog on the web.

Good article...

Recycling Fraud- no apologies Dave

I don't buy that at all. Thanks for the research Riley and I can see how 'Recycling Fraud' could be intellectually dishonest, but not in the context of reiterating agreed upon historical facts. In that context, someone would need to establish an argument disputing the validity of Dave's claims of 1) the character of the riots around Johnson's victory over Jeffries and 2) the witch hunt against Johnson and his eventual exile. The fact that Dave used some sentences verbatim from past articles is more of a stylistic criticism.

Dave is not restating his opinion, nor is he restating a theory or an idea verbatim from a previous piece. He is paraphrasing agreed upon historical fact, the criticism comes down to phrasing.

If this article were in a book or scholarly journal, that info would need to be cited, but needless to say the rules on internet sites are much more lax.

Interesting that we're arguing this point here. Those on the left, or those on the outside looking into the political and intellectual mainstream have always had to protect against these accusations. I just didn't think that that would extend to this corner of the internet.

Re: Recycling Fraud - no apologies Dave

I don't mean to belabor the recycling incident, but as a recovering academic, I can't let BustaCat's incorrect formulation go by.

You actually can't plagiarize or recycle historical facts. You can only plagiarize or recycle the writing expression (or "phrasing" in BustaCat's words). Expression is the whole kit and kaboodle.


Footnotes indeed! This is nit-picking refined.


how in the world did this turn into an argument about the intellectual dishonesty inherent in plagiarizing yourself on a free internet blog?

damn, i should go back and check myself on some forums i'm on.

anyways Tornado, pretty telling that this is what you choose to harbor on.

Didn't mean to...

but I think I may have contributed to killing the comment section of this article...oops.

Just for the record

The comments here were a bit troll and diversion heavy. There are loads of people who read this site, like me, who don't comment but appreciate it all the same.

Keep up the good work.

Truth Hurts

Jenkins' comments are just more ammo in the argument that the idea of a color-blind socitey still eludes us, in part, because ignorance is bliss...Great Flow Dave The direction of the conversation is so typically American..easily mis-directed into BS......the point is, that once again, America has shown her true colors.

good article...

The powers that be are making sure we continue this centuries' worth of arguing to keep that so-called wealth coming in.

major taylor

Major Taylor was the first black world champion of any sport. he was championship cyclist check out his story

Not again....

It seems every time I look at my membership card for the Conservative Party of Canada I have to remind myself I'll be dealing with a few morons from time to time. Well morons and trolls.

Tornado, Dave may seem to repeat himself to you, but to those of us who have been reading his articles and books for years understand(like Dave does) that sometimes people need to be smacked about the head with truth several times before it sinks in. Dave brings up racism because few others have the brass to and more credit to him for doing so.

Say what you want conservatives...

it's about race. At the end of the day, you're still pissed that a black man is in office. Truth is Obama could propose that the Teletubbies be invited to the white house and somehow the conservatives would claim that "illegal aliens are visiting the white house". My problem is this...I would certainly be considered liberal. But I'm also interested in solutions that impact the majority of people in our country. With conservative I feel all you are interested in is trying to polarize our country into believing half the crap that comes out of your mouth. You don't even care if we come out of a recession, you don't care if we end a war, [that factually, by the way, we were convinced to go into under false pretenses]. And please don't talk about national security cause that's pathetic. You're worse than an Adam Sandler chick flick, please just be real for the sake of all of us.

Being black or brown in the U.S. is different from being white. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but the challenges are different and at times insurmountable. No matter your background just be smart, instead of wasting time poking holes at David Zirin, the one guy who's willing to put up a mirror to your racist idealogy especially when dealing with sports. Be original. Please for the sake of humanity.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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