Philip Kadish, NBC News, September 17, 2015
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently questioned the ability of Ben Carson, his new chief rival in the polls, to be president, saying, “I don’t think Ben has the energy.”
Trump has used this particular attack before, calling Jeb Bush “a very low-energy kind of guy,” but questioning a competitor’s “energy” carries very different historical resonances when directed at an African American candidate.
By “energy” Trump seems to be referring to Carson’s calm demeanor and refusal to get into a shouting match with Trump and other candidates at the last Republican presidential debate. However, Carson operates under the same double bind as President Obama: that nothing kills white support of a black politician faster than seeming like an “angry black man.”
But the history of saying that blacks lack energy goes much deeper than merely a cultural fear of black anger. Whether Trump is aware of it or not, the notion that black men lack “energy” has been a canard of racism since colonial days.
According to American Saxonists, energy was on the short list of traits that Saxons possessed in a unique combination that rendered them superior to all other European and non-European ethnicities.
The full list included pride, intelligence, masculinity, and energy. “Pride” was supposedly what spurred Anglo-Americans to rebel against British tyranny, while a lack of pride was said to explain why blacks “submitted” to enslavement. A supposed lack of energy was said to explain black inability to compete with American free market capitalism.
An 1896 report on the condition of American negroes for the American Economic Association asserted that the race was characterized by “a lack of energy both physical and mental . . . and even in America under all the instigations of Aryan activity, the Negro race scarcely displays any voluntary energy of thought or work. It goes only so far as the whip of necessity drives . . . .”
Trump managed, in casting doubts on the African American candidate’s “energy,” to tap into hoary old racist stereotypes of Asians, as well. Trump’s claim that “Ben is a nice guy but . . . when you’re negotiating against China, and you’re negotiating against these Japanese guys that are going to come against you in waves . . . we need people that are really smart, that have tremendous deal-making skills and that have great, great energy.”
Trump’s invocation of hoards of wily Asians against whom only American whites can effectively stand up resembles nothing so much as Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 work, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Stoddard warned that, “If white civilization goes down . . . it will be swamped by the triumphant colored races . . . If the present drift be not changed, we whites are all ultimately doomed.”