The 11 Most Racist U.S. Presidents

05/27/2016 05:01 pm ET Updated May 28, 2017
Vintage American history print of the first twenty-one Presidents of The United States seated together in The White House. It
Vintage American history print of the first twenty-one Presidents of The United States seated together in The White House. It reads, Our Presidents. 1789 - 1881. Included presidents are from right to left, James Madison, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Pierce, George Washington, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Chester Arthur, James Buchanan, John Adams, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, Millard Fillmore, John Quincy Adams, and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Let's imagine the unimaginable: Donald Trump was elected president in November. Yes, president of the United States.

Let's imagine the impossible: he forced Mexico to build a border wall. Let's imagine the unthinkable: he deported millions of Latino/as. Let's imagine the unconscionable: he ruthlessly terrorized Muslim Americans and #Black Lives Matter activists. Let's imagine the unacceptable: middle and low income people suffered horribly under the weight of this billionaire's policies.

Let's imagine that he did not moderate on his campaign pledges and he carried them out as president. Would a President Trump go down in the annals of American history as one of the most racist presidents ever?

He certainly would face a substantial amount of competition on the racist front. There have been many frightfully racist U.S. presidents in American history. Here are the 11 most racist U.S. presidents of all time.

11. George Walker Bush ~ 43rd President (2001-2009)

Not only did President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) in 2003 increase the stranglehold of standardized testing on America's children--tests antiracists have long argued were racist. NCLBA more or less encouraged funding mechanisms that decreased (or did not increase) funding to schools when students were struggling or not making improvements on tests, thus privately leaving the neediest students of color behind.

Then two years later, President Bush's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publically left thousands of stranded Black folk behind after Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005. While reporters quickly reached the Gulf Coast, federal officials made excuses for their delays, quickening the death spiral in New Orleans, ensuring that President Bush would land on this list of the most racist presidents of all time. And to top it all off, President Bush's economic policies--his lax regulation of Wall Street loaners and speculators--helped bring into being the Great Recession, bringing about the largest loss of Black and Latino wealth in recent history.

10. John Calvin Coolidge Jr. ~ 30th President (1923-1929)

President Bush's FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina seemed prompt when compared to President's Coolidge's handling of the Great Mississippi (River) Flood of 1927. While most White communities were saved, riverside Black communities were flooded to reduce the pressure on the levees. And then these thousands of displaced Blacks were forced to work for their rations under the gun of the National Guard and area planters, leading to a conflagration of mass beatings, lynchings, and rapes. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who President Coolidge eventually appointed to head the relief efforts, capitalized on southern segregationists' support for his flood mismanagement and succeeded Coolidge in the White House.

President Coolidge also signed arguably the most racist and ethnocentric immigration act in history, an act championed by Republican eugenicists and Democratic Klansmen. The Immigration Act of 1924 was co-authored by Washington Congressman Albert Johnson, well-schooled in theories of "yellow peril" that had rationalized discrimination against west coast Asians for decades. The bipartisan measure further restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe, severely restricted African immigrants, and banned the immigrations of Arabs and Asians. "America must be kept American," President Coolidge had said during his first annual message to Congress in 1923.

9. Dwight David Eisenhower ~ 34th President (1953-1961)

Most presidents made this list for what they did. President Eisenhower made this list for what he did not do. He made this list as a representative of all those U.S. presidents who did nothing to stop the trepidations of slavery and segregation and mass incarceration.

When NAACP lawyers persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to rule Jim Crow as unconstitutional in 1954, President Eisenhower did not endorse Brown v. Board of Education and dragged his feat to enforce it. At a White House dinner the year before, President Eisenhower had told Chief Justice Earl Warren he could understand why White southerners wanted to make sure "their sweet little girls [are not] required to sit in school alongside some big black buck." He reluctantly sent federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine who were desegregating an Arkansas high school. He considered that act to be the most repugnant of all his presidential acts. During those critical years after the 1954 Brown decision, this former five-star World War II general did not wage war against segregation. And he remains as much to blame as anyone for its persistence, for the lives lost fighting against it.

8. James Knox Polk ~ 11th President (1845-1849)

In the 1840s, western expansion of the U.S. was uniting White Americans, while the western expansion of slavery was dividing White Americans. Months after President Polk took office, John O'Sullivan had imagined White Americans' "manifest destiny...to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us." President Polk leaned on this racist idea when his administration waged the Mexican American War (1846-1848). War propagandists framed the U.S. as bringing freedom and civilization to the backward Mexicans. From the war spoils, the U.S. seized from Mexico nearly all of what is now the American Southwest--a gargantuan land seizure that mirrored the ongoing violent seizures of Native American land and the ongoing violent seizures of Black labor.

President Polk led the fight against those politicians and activists pressing to ban slavery in the new southwestern territories. This lifelong slaveholder was angrily hated by antislavery Americans as the leader of the western marching "Slave Power." Indeed, President Polk wanted slavery to extend to the Pacific Ocean. He looked away as White slaveholders (and non-slaveholders) danced around the legal protections for Mexican landowners inscribed in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and went about illegally stealing the lands of the new group of Mexican American citizens. President Polk started a forgetful history of the Mexican southwest--and the long history of racism against Mexicans inside and outside of the border--a history of racism that is now fueling the campaign of Donald Trump.

7. Thomas Woodrow Wilson ~ 28th President (1913-1921)

The same reasons why antiracist students have been pushing recently for Princeton University to take Wilson's name down from campus buildings are the same reasons why he made this list. President Wilson never turned his back on the racist ideas he produced as a Princeton political scientist. President Wilson oversaw the re-segregation of the federal government. Black federal workers were fired, and those that remained faced separate and unequal workspaces, lunchrooms, and bathrooms. He refused to appoint Black ambassadors to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as was custom. Professor Wilson and then President Wilson unapologetically backed what he called the "great Ku Klux Klan," and championed the Klan's violent disenfranchisement of southern African Americans in the late 19th century. President Wilson began the brutal two-decade U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915, preventing Haitians from self-governing. And possibly most egregiously, at the Versailles Convention settling World War I in 1919, President Wilson effectively killed Japan's proposal for a treaty recognizing racial equality, thus sustaining the life of European colonialism.

6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ~ 32nd President (1933-1945)

Eleanor Roosevelt's storied life of activity on the civil rights front could not save her husband from making this list. Neither could the storied life of activity on the racist front of his uncle Theodore Roosevelt save him. FDR's racism was even more impactful that his uncle, Teddy. President Roosevelt's executive order in 1942 that ended up rounding up and forcing more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into prisons during World War II is arguably the most racist executive order in American history (He thankfully spared German and Italian Americans from the military prisons, but that showed his racism).

And while some of the White American competitors in the 1936 Berlin Olympics received invitations to the White House, Jesse Owens did not. President Roosevelt's snub of the U.S. four-time gold medal winner came around the same time he was pushing through Congress all of the job benefits in his New Deal, like minimum wage, social security, unemployment insurance, and unionizing rights. Farmers and domestics--southern Blacks' primary vocations--were excluded from the New Deal and federal relief was locally administered, satisfying southern segregationists. Northern segregationists were also satisfied by the housing discrimination in New Deal initiatives, like coding Black neighborhoods as unsuitable for the new mortgages. As such, Black communities remained buried in the Great Depression long after the 1930s while these New Deal policies (combined with the GI Bill) exploded the size of the White middle class.

5. Thomas Jefferson ~ 3rd President (1801-1809)

By the time President Jefferson took office in 1801, his "all Men are created equal" was fast becoming a distant memory in the new nation's racial politics. President Jefferson had emerged as the preeminent American authority on Black inferiority. His racist ideas ("The blacks...are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind") in his perennially best-selling Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) were that impactful. His Notes were useful for powerful Americans rationalizing slavery after the American Revolution. In the book, Jefferson also offered the most popular race relations solution of the 19th century: the freeing, "civilizing," and colonizing of all Blacks back to "barbaric" Africa.

President Jefferson should be applauded for pushing Congress to pass the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Then again, a new evil replaced the old. The measure closed the door on the nation's legal participation in the international slave trade in 1808, and flung open the door on the domestic slave trade. Large slaveholders like President Jefferson supported this law since it increased the demand and value of their captives. They started deliberately "breeding" enslaved Africans to supply the demand of planters rushing into the Louisiana territory, which President Jefferson purchased from Napoleon in 1803. "I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm," Jefferson explained to a friend on June 30, 1820.

4. James Monroe ~ 5th President (1817-1825)

If Jefferson was the brainchild of the colonization movement, then President Monroe was its pioneering initiator. Weeks before he was elected, candidate Monroe watched and supported the formation of the American Colonization Society. Presiding over the first meeting, House Speaker Henry Clay tasked the organization with ridding "our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous" population, and redeeming Africa "from ignorance and barbarism." By 1821, President Monroe had seized a strip of coastal West African land. This first American colony in Africa was later named "Liberia," and its capital was named "Monrovia."

But it was another namesake that really thrust President Monroe onto this list. "We...declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portions of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." Thus said President Monroe during his seventh annual message to Congress in 1923. Several U.S. presidents used this "Monroe Doctrine" as a rationalizing cord for U.S. intervention into sovereign Latin American states, including the toppling of governments unfriendly to U.S. interests. This Monroe Doctrine was as racist and devastating to Latin American communities abroad as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was to indigenous communities at home. In 2013, President Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry declared to the Organization of American States the "era of the Monroe Doctrine is over."

3. Ronald Wilson Reagan ~ 40th President (1981-1989)

The arbiter of the "welfare queen" myth who evoked the old slaveholder and segregationist mantra of "states' rights" perfected President Richard Nixon's infamous "southern strategy" that actually worked nationally. President Reagan attracted voters through racially coded appeals that allowed them to avoid admitting they were attracted by the racist appeals. He stood at the head of a reactionary movement that undid some of the material gains of civil rights and Black power activists. During President Reagan's first year in office, the median income of Black families declined by 5.2 percent and the number of poor Americans, who were disproportionately Black, increased by 2.2. million--a sign of things to come under Reaganomics. Then in 1982, President Reagan announced his War on Drugs at an inauspicious time: when drug use was declining. "We must mobilize all our forces to stop the flow of drugs into this country," Reagan said.

President Reagan surely did not mobilize any of his forces to stop the CIA-back Contra rebels of Nicaragua from smuggling cocaine into the country to fund their operations. But he surely did mobilize his forces to draw media attention to their spreading of crack cocaine in 1985. The media blitz handed his slumbering War on Drugs an intense media high in 1986. That fall, he signed "with great pleasure" the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established minimum sentencing for drug crimes and led to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown drug offenders over the next few decades. Like his campaign strategies, President Reagan took President Nixon's racist drug war to a new level, and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown bodies accelerated under the Bush (times two) and Clinton administrations, especially after Clinton's 1994 crime bill. White drug offenders, consuming and dealing drugs at similar or greater rates, remained disproportionately free. Reagan stands on this list as the representative of all these mass incarcerating presidents in the late 20th century.

2. Andrew Jackson ~ 7th President (1829-1837)

Yes, the president the U.S. Treasury is planning on putting on the back of Harriett Tubman is the second most racist president of all-time. Ironically, he attracted the same demographic groups (less educated, less affluent White men) that Trump is attracting these days.

Jackson stepped into the U.S. presidency as a wealthy Tennessee enslaver and military general who had founded and spearheaded the Democratic Party. Jacksonian Democrats, as historians call them, amassed a winning coalition of southern enslavers, White working people, and recent European immigrants who regularly rioted against abolitionists, indigenous and Black communities, and civil rights activists before and after the Civil War. When the mass mailings of antislavery tracts captured national attention in 1835, President Jackson called on Congress to pass a law prohibiting "under severe penalties, the circulation...of incendiary publications." And the following year Jackson and his supporters instituted the infamous "gag rule" that effectively tabled all the anti-slavery petitions rushing into Congress.

And yet, it was his Indian removal policies that were the most devastating of all on the lives of Native Americans (and African Americans). Beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, President Jackson forced several Native Americans nations to relocate from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas west of the Mississippi River--all to make way for those enslaved Africans being forcibly hauled into the Deep South. President Jackson help forge this trail of Native American tears out of the Deep South, and this trail of African tears into the Deep South.

1. Andrew Johnson ~ 17th President (1865-1869)

This Democrat from Tennessee was sworn into the presidency after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln days after the Civil War ended. When President Johnson issued his Reconstruction proclamations about a month later on May 29, 1865, he deflated the high hopes of civil rights activists. President Johnson offered amnesty, property rights, and voting rights to all but the highest Confederate officials (most of whom he pardoned a year later). He later ordered the return of land to pardoned Confederates, null and voided those wartime orders that granted Blacks forty acres and a mule, and removed many of the Black troops from the South.

Feeling empowered by President Johnson, Confederates instituted a series of discriminatory Black codes at the constitutional conventions that reformulated southern states in the summer and fall of 1865. The immediate postwar South became the spitting image of the prewar South in everything but name--as the law replaced the master. These racist policies caused a postwar, war, since an untold number of Black people lost their lives resisting them.

Congress stepped up to unravel the reemergence of the southern Confederacy in everything but name. But President Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and Civil Rights Bill of 1866, compelling Congress to pass them over his veto. President Johnson also opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. constitution, and in 1868 became the first American president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. He remained in office, after being acquitted in the Senate by one vote. But President Johnson has never been acquitted in the annals of history. He still makes those lists on the worst presidents of all-time. He tops this list as the most racist president of all time.