Today, President Donald Trump is expected to take a break from wrecking the world (or simply doing what he said he would) to sign the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that seeks to reverse many of the “tough on crime” drug laws that have imposed draconian sentences on largely black and poor Americans. Passage of the bill yesterday solidifies a reality that I’ve been arguing for a while now (long before people like Van Jones began to acknowledge it): Kim Kardashian West (with some assistance from her husband Kanye) is making her case for being one of America’s leading black activists.
Wow, I can actually hear the scoffing through my computer screen…let me explain.
I’ve somehow become a bit of a Kim and Kanye apologist, going all the way back to the very beginnings of this website. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West get plenty of flack from many directions. Kim and the Kardashian/Jenner clan are routinely mocked for their relationship dramas, questionable fashion choices, and general obsessive fame seeking and self-commercialization. Kanye, meanwhile, gets called out for his erratic statements (on wax, in interviews and over Twitter), too small shoes and overly-healthy self-esteem. The couple’s harshest critics, however, reside in black America. Kim is savaged for cultural appropriation (so, so much cultural appropriation) and Kanye for being a sell-out to the Trump administration. They’re easy to mock or condemn, but we should also stop and listen for a minute.
My opinion of Kim Kardashian West changed when she successfully lobbied President Trump to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a now-elderly black woman who walked free earlier this year after serving 22 years of a life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses. At the time, many people dismissed Kim’s activism while celebrating Johnson’s freedom. But the advocacy for Johnson was not a one-off: Kim’s kept going since then, visiting the White House to push for the release of Chris Young (a 30 year old man already 10 years into a life sentence for nonviolent drug charges – a punishment so extreme it drove the sentencing judge to quit) and for larger criminal justice reform. She also publicly called on California Governor Jerry Brown to look into the case of Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate whose conviction for a 1983 quadruple murder may have been a result of police framing and who has been pushing for new DNA testing that could potentially exonerate him.
While many people continue to scoff at those who cooperate with Donald Trump as collaborators (especially black Americans who do so), the Kardashian-West couple have hit upon ways to constructively engage Trump in order to substantially benefit black America, an impressive feat when facing a President who routinely drives away his top aides due to his petulance and refusal to listen.
Kanye West, for his part, is an expert in insecurity and the bravado that people use to mask it (go back and listen to “All Falls Down” from the College Dropout album). In that regard, he is in an excellent position to give insights into President Trump’s psyche. I return to an interview Kabye gave earlier this year,when he reluctantly answered the “Does Donald Trump care about black people?” question. West’s response:
I feel that he cares about the way black people feel about him, and he would like for black people to like him like they did when he was cool in the rap songs and all this, and he will do the things that are necessary to make that happen because he’s got an ego like all the rest of us, and he wants to be the greatest president, and he knows that he can’t be the greatest president without the acceptance of the black community, so it’s something he’s gonna work towards, but we’re gonna have to speak to him
While valid criticisms of both Kim and Kanye remain (as does the need to call out the Trump administration for its many forays into promoting racism), thousands of (black) Americans will likely be walking out of prison because of the efforts of many people, including Kim Kardashian West and her husband Kanye, and I’ll happily accept a little (ok a lot of) attention seeking for that.