'Empty Barrel': The Real Meaning of John Kelly's Slurs Against Frederica Wilson
Donald Trump gets particularly upset when women or black people dare to disagree with him. So black women are the perfect targets for his ire.
To wit: Trump's enemies list of black women includes sports journalist Jemele Hill, Rep. Maxine Waters, former national security adviser Susan Rice and White House reporter April Ryan. Trump's newest enemies? Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, and Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, an Army Special Forces sergeant who was killed in action Oct. 4 during a mission in the West African nation of Niger.
After being publicly shamed into contacting Myeshia Johnson -- Trump has evidently been negligent in reaching out to the families of soldiers killed under his command -- he told her during a phone conversation that her husband "knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway." It was also reported by those who heard the call that Trump apparently did not even refer to Sgt. Johnson by name instead saying, "your guy."
Myeshia Johnson, the slain soldier's aunt (who raised him after his mother died) and Rep. Wilson, a family friend, were all stunned by Trump's thoughtless and disrespectful comments. Facing public condemnation for his behavior, Trump, as he apparently always does, decided to attack Wilson, Myeshia Johnson and La David Johnson's aunt as liars. Of course the president also declared that this episode was another example of him being depicted unfairly by "fake news."
He has chosen Wilson as a special obsession for his rage. On Twitter, Trump has repeatedly described her as "wacky" and said she is "killing the Democrat Party." (Republicans almost never say "Democratic Party," for reasons of their own.)
In response to this debacle, Trump apparently instructed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, to appear in person at last Thursday's White House press briefing. Kelly's mission? To be a human shield for his boss. How? By enabling Trump's malignant narcissism, sociopathy, lies and cruel treatment towards a grieving war widow, her family and other loved ones. Despite claims about how "honorable" Kelly is, at least for that day he was Trump's water carrier and stooge.
Kelly insisted that Trump is being treated unfairly and that Myeshia Johnson and Rep. Wilson were the offenders against propriety and good taste, violating some imaginary "sacred" rule where no one should listen to a phone call between a president and the family members of a killed soldier. This norm apparently does not apply to Kelly himself, or other members of Trump's inner circle.
Kelly demonstrated his thinly veiled contempt for the fundamental norm that in a democracy, civilians have command and control over the military. Such an attitude legitimates Trump's authoritarian behavior.
Kelly let slip that Trump did in fact tell Myeshia Johnson that her husband "knew what he was getting into." Once again, Trump is caught out in a lie.
Kelly's finale in aiding and abetting Trump's war on black women was a rhetorical killshot in which the former general said that Wilson was "in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise." He claimed he had heard her brag about her role in making a new FBI building in South Florida possible. Wilson, according to Kelly, spoke at the opening ceremony "about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building. . . . And we were stunned, stunned that she’d done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”
Translated: Kelly publicly defamed Wilson -- and, by implication, Myeshia Johnson -- as being a loud, stupid, ignorant person. But words can also mean more than a superficial reading would suggest.
Language derives power from the social, political and historical context in which it is used. The meaning of language is also a function of the relationship between the individuals and groups in question.
Kelly is one of the most powerful men in the world. He is also one of the most powerful white men in America. Black women and girls are undervalued and dehumanized in American society. White supremacy endures as one of the most powerful forces in all of American political and social life. It works through and not apart from sexism and misogyny.
For centuries, black women and girls in America have been stereotyped as being loud, aggressive, hypersexual, lazy and violent. Simultaneously, black women and girls have also been viewed by the white gaze as being natural caregivers, unselfish and possessed of unique emotional and physical strength which makes them immune (unlike white women) to pain and suffering. In total, these stereotypes transform the complex and diverse life experiences and humanity of black women and girls into caricatures such as "the mammy," the "black harpy" or the "Sapphire."
At the website for the Jim Crow Museum, sociologist David Pilgrim explains the "Sapphire" stereotype in the following way: "The Sapphire Caricature portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing. The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.
Wilson immediately decoded the racist and sexist invective in Trump's and Kelly's attacks on her character.
Stacey Plaskett, the U.S. Virgin Islands' delegate to Congress, also understood the deeper meaning of Trump's and Kelly's slurs against Rep. Wilson. Plaskett told The New York Times, “He continually called that fallen soldier ‘your guy’ to his wife. That was his wife. . . . It was almost as if he doesn’t believe that we have husbands and wives as black people. And that I find very disturbing, that he would not give her the respect of calling that soldier her husband. . . . I think he challenges anybody who goes after him and corrects him, whether they are black or white or male or female," she continued. "I think the attack is more stark when it is a woman of color.”
Ultimately, John Kelly, who served the United States as a four-star Marine general, and is now White House chief of staff, basically called a congresswoman a loud, stupid black bitch.
It does not matter to Kelly, Trump, the right-wing media or Trump's deplorable foot soldiers that Wilson has a graduate degree in education and worked for decades as a school principal.
It does not matter to Kelly, Trump, the right-wing media or Trump's human deplorable foot soldiers that everything Wilson said was correct and that Trump and Kelly's accounts have proven to be lies.
For Trump and his cabal, all that matters is the political power that comes from slurring a black woman, and how such an action inflames and arouses the racist voters who installed him in the White House.
Trump was in fact correct, however, when he tweeted over the weekend that: "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party, a disaster for Dems. You watch her in action & vote R!" Social scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that racially resentful white voters can be motivated to support Republican policies by the mere act of showing them the image of a black person.
Perhaps the United States will always remain a racist country, whose idea of democracy is inseparable from white male supremacy. At any rate, Donald Trump reminds the world of that heritage nearly every day.