The Episode of ‘The Jeffersons’ That Predicted Trump’s America
“Blacks are different. Americans have gotten used to you people.”
Two nights ago, I finally saw Spike Lee’s brilliant BlacKkKlansman. The film was a bracing reminder of the way we were in the early ’70s when it came to race relations in the United States.
The 2017 Charlottesville footage at the end and the clips of President Donald Trump acknowledging the “very fine people” among the white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville and his failure to condemn them outright were bracing reminders of the way we still are.
The following morning, I got into another time machine and traveled back to a vintage 1981 episode of The Jeffersons on YouTube. After spending two hours and 15 minutes in Spike Lee’s disturbingly Trumpian-esque ’70s, I once again ended up in a retro place that felt a lot like 2018.
In “God Bless Americans,” the 11th episode from the sitcom’s seventh season, George Jefferson was trying to impress Jack Pomeroy, the über-patriotic, American flag-worshipping host of a popular TV show, and grab a spot as a guest by flaunting his rah-rah American pride. (Actor Jim Weston played Pomeroy perfectly, with a hammy plastic smile and smarmy superiority, channeling future TV host Megyn Kelly.)
As George gushed red, white, and blue, it didn’t take long for Pomeroy to show his true conservative colors. Although he was initially congenial, when he found out that George was sponsoring Carlos, a Cuban immigrant, to get him released from a detention center in Miami, Pomeroy’s mask dropped and hit the floor with a thud.
“Those damn Cubans are more trouble than they’re worth,” he said when George first broached the subject of Cuban refugees.
He added: “They’re sending us their criminals and their crazies, and what do they expect us to do — take jobs away from Americans and give them to foreigners. I say, ‘America for Americans.’ Don’t you agree, George?”
He turned more aggressive when Hector, the Cuban friend of the detainee showed up and praised George for giving Carlos a job — and a chance.
“I really misread you, Jefferson. I had no idea you condoned giving away the country to… his kind,” Pomeroy sniffed.
This was where George’s wife Louise stepped in. “I think you owe Hector an apology,” she told Mr. Pomeroy.
“Mrs. Jefferson, this country is being overrun by these Cubans. We open our arms to these people, and what do they do? They riot and burn down buildings.”
Louise continued to try to make her point about immigrants who were willing to work but kept getting doors slammed in their faces. Predictably, Pomeroy wasn’t buying it.
“You’re damn right I’ll slam a door in their faces,” he said. “These Cubans are the dregs of humanity.”
Hector tried to defend himself and defend his fellow Cubans, but Pomeroy played deaf and dumb.
“Bull. Castro kicked you out of Cuba. Let’s face it. There’s nothing lower than being a Commie, and you weren’t even good enough to be one of them,” he said, citing an incident in Wisconsin in which a Cuban immigrant was on trial for killing his sponsor.
But wait a minute. How could he judge the actions of all by the actions of a few? Inquiring minds — well, specifically, Louise — wanted to know. (If we applied the same one-for-all logic to the white men who shoot up schools, black churches, and synagogues, blow up government buildings, or most rapists, serial killers, and white-collar criminals, there wouldn’t be a safe space left on this earth for straight white men.)
“You can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones,” Pomeroy said, like a robot programmed to recite right-wing propaganda. “The only way to solve this problem is to put all those Cubans in a boat and send them back where they came from.”
Louise reminded Pomeroy that white people used to say the same thing about black people.
“No no no. Blacks are different,” he countered. “Americans have gotten used to you people…. Sure, like you, Jefferson. You’re a hard-working acceptable black person.”
See what he did there? In the space of a few minutes, he made the leap from xenophobic to racist. It’s not a hard jump. Xenophobia and racism usually live in close proximity in the hearts of people that harbor passionate anti-immigrant vitriol.
If Pomeroy existed in real life in 2018, he’d probably be a Republican. He likely wouldn’t see the problem with blackface, and he definitely would have voted for Trump.
As I watched the episode, I couldn’t believe how prescient it was. The dialogue practically predicted the future, a future where the U.S. President would use the same kind of “patriotic” logic (only switching Cuban refugees for migrants from Central America) in order to give Republicans an edge in the midterm elections.
That roughly half of Americans are falling for Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and might very well hit the polls on Election Day to enforce his dream ban on brown and black outsiders shows how far we haven’t come since 1981. Those who won’t learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat them. I only hope Trump’s MAGA-cheering populists don’t drag the rest of us down with them.