Lynn Jenkins, a republican representative from Kansas, recently commiserated with constituents disillusioned with republican leadership that the party was "struggling to find its great white hope." She tried to backtrack from the statement at a later event, saying, "I was unaware of any negative connotation." Even if Jenkins, as she claimed, did not know the racial overtones associated with the origin of that phrase, it would be stunning for her not to infer them. To what did she imagine "white" referred? Hair color? Albinism? The truth is she almost certainly did know.
The phrase "great white hope" often is associated with pre-civil rights-era racism and is widely believed to have entered usage in the U.S. when boxer Jack Johnson, who was black, captured the heavyweight title in the early 20th century. Many whites reacted to Johnson's achievement by trying to find white fighters — or a "great white hope" — who could beat him.
During the 1910 match, white spectators called for Johnson's death. His white opponent quit when it became clear he was going to lose. Race riots ensued all over the country, with blacks celebrating and whites threatening to lynch black people; 27 black people and 2 white people were killed. Johnson was later arrested for violating the Mann Act for transporting a woman (who happened to be white) over state lines for "immoral" purposes. The woman refused to testify and the case was dropped. When he was arrested on the same charge months later, the involved woman (also white) did testify, and Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 1 year. He fled the country and returned years later to serve out his sentence at Leavenworth. For years, his family, with the support of some legislators--including John McCain--have sought to have him pardoned.
So, despite the play and movie on Johnson's life, both of which bear this phrase as a title, and the fact that Jenkins was present on July 29 when the House of Representatives passed a resolution by voice vote urging Obama to pardon Johnson posthumously for the racially motivated conviction, Jenkins insisted she only meant to suggest there are potential young republican stars in Washington. She denied her remark had anything to do with Obama or the fact that he is black.
She sounded so oblivious, one could almost believe her. However, considering Congress has not had a black republican since J. C. Watts retired in 2003, what need would she have to emphasize "white" except in opposition to someone who is black? And then there's the word "hope," frequently associated with Obama thanks to a very iconic poster.
Considering Jenkins was present in the House on July 29 when the Johnson bill passed, as evidenced by her other votes that day, it seems hard to believe she would not know who Johnson was or the meaning of the phrase "great white hope." In fact, her recent exposure to information on Jack Johnson makes it even more likely that she used the phrase because she knew its meaning.