Oh, So Now Steve Harvey Is Sorry for Cozying Up to Trump?
Black celebrities from Ben Vereen to Wilt Chamberlain have identified themselves with Republicans and survived. But this is different.
The latest ratings for Steve Harvey’s show are bad. He’s lost his audience, and he blames his meeting with then President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Jan. 13 as the cause of his plummeting ratings. Back then, Harvey had nothing but glowing praise for Trump and high hopes for Trump’s presidency.
“I walked away feeling like I had just talked with a man who genuinely wants to make a difference in this area. I feel that something really great could come out of this,” said Harvey of his meeting with Trump.
Harvey basked in the glory of meeting with a man who rose to prominence as a “birther” and elevated white supremacists to the highest levels of power. For months, Harvey defended his decision to meet with Trump and only now that it could potentially ruin his career he has seen the error in his ways. Harvey’s no longer a person worth listening to.
Frankly, Harvey had already stopped being funny back in June, after he told a man from Flint, Michigan, who called into his radio show to “enjoy your nice brown glass of water.”
Harvey gets it now. “Meeting with Donald Trump was the worst mistake of my life,” he recently said on his radio show. But he has a lot of work to do to win back black support.
Ben Carson was loved by black America when he was the brain surgeon from Johns Hopkins who wrote inspirational books for black children. But all of his credibility quickly evaporated once he started criticizing President Barack Obama. His clueless political statements, stunningly moronic presidential campaign, and friendship with Trump only further solidified his exile from and ridicule within the black community. Carson seems uninterested in making amends and working to earn back the support he once had. He’s chosen a new team.
Harvey and Carson deserve their ostracism. But not everyone does. In recent years, the most dramatic and controversial shunning a black celebrity has received from the black community is also the most tragic and unjust.
On Jan. 19, 1981, Tony Award-winning actor Ben Vereen appeared at President Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Gala wearing blackface and performing a minstrel show. His performance was intended as a tribute to legendary black vaudevillian Bert Williams, who was forced to wear blackface when he performed, and it featured two acts. In the first, he buoyantly danced and sang “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” before the rapturous Republican audience with Ron and Nancy applauding his efforts. The second act consisted of him defiantly taking off his blackface while singing “Nobody (I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time).” Collectively, his performance was intended to show the pain of blackface and the exploitation of African Americans before this predominantly white audience and to the rest of America.
But when ABC aired Vereen’s tape-delayed performance, the network omitted the second half.
Vereen at the time was one of the most celebrated black actors in America. The rebuke from the black community was swift and strong. People had no idea there was a second part and Vereen became persona non grata to black America. It took years for Vereen to rebuild his career, and over 30 years later, a live production came out to finally set the record straight.
NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain’s support for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign resulted in shock and bewilderment from the black community. Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar openly criticized Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor and playing college ball at UCLA in 1968, but Chamberlain had been a mentor to the young Alcindor since he was 15. Chamberlain’s support of Nixon was one of many fissures between these two giants of basketball that Abdul-Jabbar described in his autobiography Giant Steps.
“Wilt the Stilt” even attended the 1968 Republican National Convention and wrangled delegates for Nixon. Eventually, Chamberlain fell out with Nixon over his dislike of Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s running mate. Agnew argued that America must have two societies, one white and one black. He called Stokely Carmichael a traitor and emphasized the need for more “law and order” to stop the civil-rights movement. Chamberlain also hated how Agnew always spoke down to black people and said “Negro” with a hurtful tone. In 1968, Agnew’s segregationist rhetoric was drowned out by the insurgent presidential campaign of avowed segregationist George Wallace, but the black community was all too familiar with his treatment of African Americans in Maryland.
Following the convention, Chamberlain saw that he would have no role in the Nixon administration and stopped campaigning for Nixon. Slowly but surely he got back in the good graces of the black community. But he also refrained from political activism.
Surprisingly, Booker T. Washington might have received the most stern rebuking from the black community of anyone due to his “accommodationist” beliefs he expressed in his famed “Atlanta Compromise” speech from 1895. Initially, it was celebrated across the nation by both blacks and whites, and it made Washington the most influential black man in America for years. President Teddy Roosevelt loved it so much he formally invited Washington to dine with his family in the White House.
Washington’s speech addressed the “Negro problem” and encouraged African Americans to become proficient in agriculture and domestic service, and to stop agitating for social equality. The speech also appeased white fears of social integration by proclaiming that blacks and whites could “be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
The spread of Jim Crow and the failure of Washington’s philosophy to produce any semblance of “mutual progress” pushed more and more African Americans away from Washington’s beliefs.
W.E.B. Du Bois dedicated an entire chapter in The Souls of Black Folk to a rebuke of Washington, and proposed the “talented tenth” counter to Washington’s accommodationist theory. Du Bois also created the Niagara Movement, which essentially became the NAACP, to oppose Washington.
Harvey needs to make amends with the black community. Opposing Trump would be a good place to start. A black American seeking racial justice from a man like Trump is on a fool’s errand. Harvey should have known better.