Two white billionaires, President Donald Trump and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pitched their 2020 campaigns during Super Bowl LIV last night. Both prominently featured black subjects—Bloomberg’s highlighted his record on gun control and combating gun violence, while Trump highlighted Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman Trump pardoned after being petitioned directly about Johnson’s case by Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West.
Trump immediately received backlash for his advertisement, in which he took full credit for granting Johnson’s clemency (more on that in a few). But, aired during the most expensive time slots in all of American broadcasting (each ad cost between $10-11 million), both ads were both deeply cynical plays from candidates with poor track records on protecting black people.
Bloomberg’s, on its face, seems more innocuous. It was first made public last Thursday, and features a black mother, Calandrian Kemp, grieving the death of her son, killed at the age of 20 by gunshots. Photos of her son in football jerseys featured prominently throughout the ad.
“When I heard Mike was stepping into the ring I thought, ‘Now we have a dog in this fight,’” says Kemp. The ad was shown before the beginning of the Super Bowl’s third quarter.
Bloomberg has advocated for tougher gun laws. But when it comes to criminal justice, he’s best known for how he endangered the black community through his “stop and frisk” policy as Mayor of New York City. Not only did the practice disproportionately throw young black and Latinx men behind bars in New York, but Bloomberg defended it for years until he decided to run for president—at which point finally came an apology.
The timing of the apology hints at how disingenuous Bloomberg’s sentiments actually are. There is no pathway to the Democratic presidential nomination without black voters—a fact every single one of the nominees is aware of. The 77-year-old championed “stop and frisk” during his 12-year-tenure as mayor of New York City, defending it even as criminal justice and civil liberties advocates warned him at the time of its impact on black and Latinx communities.
Each time, Bloomberg would tie it back to public safety—specifically, gun control.
“If you think you’re going to get stopped, you don’t carry a gun. And if you don’t carry a gun or look like a suspect.” Bloomberg said in May 2013.
Which brings me to Trump’s equally disingenuous proposition to Super Bowl LIV viewers. Interestingly, Trump’s Alice Johnson commercial wasn’t released before the Super Bowl, though a second spot, a triumphant display of military flashiness and positive economic stats, was. This raises the question of whether the Johnson ad, which was shown earlier in the game, was plugged in by Trump’s team in response to Bloomberg’s.
For years, criminal justice advocates pushed for Johnson, a woman serving a life sentence on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine, to be freed. In 2017, celebrities began to rally around her case, including the Wests. Because Trump loves a celebrity photo-op, a high-profile meeting at the White House between Kardashian West and Trump begat a pardon for Johnson.
Rather than a testament to Trump’s passion for criminal justice—or a triumph of any specific policy—Johnson’s clemency showcases how arbitrary the criminal justice system can be, and how a well-placed connection can make all the difference between life behind bars and freedom.
Trump himself has a lengthy track record of race-based discrimination and a present-day commitment to furthering racist policies. Trump has referred to African countries and Haiti as “shithole countries,” and recently expanded his travel ban to include Nigeria.
Then, there are his exclusionary and xenophobic immigration policies—which disproportionately affect undocumented black immigrants.
This isn’t to equivocate Trump and Bloomberg, who are different in their politics, records, and ultimate ambitions for the presidency. But it’s important to note neither actually has a plan for addressing the racial wealth gap, desegregating public schools, or dismantling a criminal justice system whose very roots are entangled with white supremacy.
Neither cares about the black community in any substantive way, except for what a sympathetic black face in an advertisement can buy them.