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Criminal Justice

What Trump’s Legal Woes Mean to Black Americans

A grand jury voted to indict the ex-president, but “if you’re white and have money, you can insulate yourself from a lot of accountability,” one historian says.

A protester holds a homemade sign during a demonstration in New York City on June 14, 2020. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

The wait is over: A Manhattan grand jury has voted to indict Donald Trump. It’s a historic move that caps off years of anxiety and uncertainty about whether Trump’s Teflon coating of white privilege would ever lose its power.

Details of the felony indictment are expected to be announced in the coming days, The New York Times reported. It marks the first time in U.S. history that a president — current or former — has faced criminal charges.

Prior to entering the White House in 2017, Trump had a résumé that included a racial discrimination lawsuit and other questionable business practices. During his presidency, he didn’t merely defend white nationalists — he made it OK to take off the hoods. And since his defeat in 2020, he’s leaned only further into a politics of grievance and retribution: He kicked off his 2024 campaign with a rally in Waco, Texas, a city central to white power mythology.

“Every day, he reminds people that, in the U.S., if you’re white and have money, you can insulate yourself from a lot of accountability,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University.

Chatelain, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, also noted the riot of Jan. 6, 2021 — the unfinished business around the assault on the U.S. Capitol, and on multiracial democracy, that Trump incited.

“If this nation takes its capital and its elections seriously, and if there have been very few consequences for the people who were involved in Jan. 6, then it doesn’t really give us much confidence that there’s a mechanism for accountability for Trump,” she said, referring to the relatively meager sentences some of the insurrectionists have received.


Read more: Alvin Bragg Isn’t the Only Black Prosecutor Taking on Donald Trump


Even as he waited for the grand jury’s decision, Trump continued to rail against people determined to show that he’s not above the law. Waco isn’t only where one of the most infamous lynchings in U.S. history occurred. Since the 1993 siege, the site has become a crucial symbol for the white power movement and extremist groups seeking to defy government authority. 

“I am your warrior. I am your justice,” Trump said to his followers during his rally speech, which was filled with complaints about critical race theory and the investigation against him. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution.”

Such invective has consequences, and can fuel violence against the communities Trump enjoys bullying.

“It’s irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric that we’re hearing from Trump,” said Eric Ward, the executive vice president of Race Forward, a racial justice organization. “The rhetoric of Trump has led to an environment where people feel that they should put that rhetoric into action.”

Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a civil rights group, echoed some of these sentiments.

“Trump’s time on the public stage has absolutely been marked by the deployment of racial resentment and hostility toward Black communities and pulling on this idea that when Black people reach and achieve certain platforms, despite all the barriers in our way, we don’t deserve it,” Robinson said. “Trump has done this for decades and decades — only to see his star rise.”

Notably, the effects of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election extended far beyond D.C. Last year, testifying to the Jan. 6 committee, Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman — two Black poll workers in Georgia, which the former president lost — described in heartrending fashion how Trump shattered their lives after he targeted them for harassment.

“I won’t even introduce myself by my name anymore. I get nervous when I bump into someone I know in the grocery store who says my name,” Freeman said. “I’ve lost my sense of security, all because a group of people starting with [Trump] and his ally Rudy Giuliani decided to scapegoat me and my daughter Shaye, to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen.”

What also tends to get lost in news coverage of Jan. 6 is the fact that it was hardly a coincidence that a white mob’s storming of the Capitol overshadowed the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s historic win in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff election — which helped flip the upper chamber to Democrats.

Our enduring commitment to democracy and civil rights

Worth underscoring is that some of the prosecutors overseeing the cases Trump has caught are Black.

This fact reflects at least two things, according to Chatelain. One, the way Black people, generally, have always taken Trump seriously: “because they understand,” she explained, “that a buffoonish and racist clown can capture the hearts and imaginations of the American people.” That is, he can feed white nationalist dogma to conservative constituencies and coax the Republican Party ever further to the right.

And two, the deliberative choices Black prosecutors had to make in pursuing Trump, “since if you’ve seen his impact on the country over the past several years and how his followers go after people who criticize him, you know that [these prosecutors] had to assess both the risk and the value of saying, ‘We see what he’s doing and want to stop him,’” she added.

Unsurprisingly, the former president has wasted no time pillorying Black prosecutors. Witness the bigoted name-calling he latched onto when he said that Alvin Bragg — Manhattan’s first Black district attorney and the person conducting the inquiry into the supposed hush-money payments to adult film actor Stormy Daniels — is “racist in reverse.” Trumpists soon flooded Bragg’s office with threats.

Trump has directed the same fury at Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who’s leading the investigation into his election subversion attempts in Georgia. After Willis, the first Black woman in her role, excoriated Republican lawmakers for introducing legislation that would allow them to remove prosecutors they don’t like, Trump, true to form, called her racist.

“It’s incredibly exhausting to see attacks on Bragg and other Black prosecutors in the midst of an unprecedented level of corruption and potential crimes committed by Trump,” Robinson said. “I think that this is a sign that Trump — and those who support him and those who enable him — will use racism every step of the way.”

Of course, exhaustion isn’t the same thing as defeat.

“I wouldn’t underestimate Black Americans’ commitment to democracy and civil rights,” Ward said. “We may be reading the room, and people may see this as pessimism. But Black folks have survived hundreds of years in the U.S. We continue to help make it a stronger democracy.”

And, he added, we’re not done yet.