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31 May 2018updated 30 Jul 2021 10:30am

Don’t ignore the real problem with Kim Kardashian’s meeting with Donald Trump

Political leaders know that meeting with celebrities is an easy win in terms of positive coverage - but that doesn’t fix the real issue.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Kim Kardashian is meeting President Donald Trump to discuss criminal justice reform. It could be the most 2018 sentence you could possibly imagine. Yes, on Wednesday, Kardashian West visited the White House to meet Trump and discuss unfair prison sentences – and one case in particular. Alice Marie Johnson: a great grandmother serving a life sentence without parole in Alabama for a first-time, nonviolent drug offence.

The derision from both sides of the political spectrum has been intense. The New York Post ran a pathetic, sexist cover story on the meeting headlined “TRUMP MEETS RUMP”, calling Kardashian West “Kim Thong Un” and referring to the meeting as a “BIG ASS SUMMIT”. Jokes on social media have been little more sophisticated. Most rest on the same fundamental punchline. A celebrity woman with a make-up line can’t know anything about politics, right?

Of course, there is a more general sense that, five years ago, reality stars Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian would never be meeting in the White House to discuss anything – because they were both reality stars. But Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and there’s not a whole lot to be done about it now. Him meeting with Kardashian West is little different to Barack Obama meeting with George Clooney to discuss the crisis in South Sudan.

Social justice activists have, perhaps fairly, called out Kardashian West’s lack of expertise in criminal justice activism more generally – this is not the same as Angelina Jolie’s lifelong humanitarian work. Kim Kardashian came across the case of Alice Marie Johnson thanks to a viral video she saw in October last year. She tweeted about it, got her own personal legal team to take on her case, and has been pushing to see Marie Johnson pardoned ever since.

For now, that’s where her work begins and ends – Kardashian West is open about the fact that she is thinking “one case at a time”, and wishes to see Marie Johnson freed before she begins advocating for criminal justice reform more generally. But she does insist that she hopes Marie Johnson will be one “of many”.

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Political leaders know that meeting with celebrities, and looking at the individual cases of people who capture a large audience on social media or otherwise, is an easy win in terms of positive coverage. Take President Emmanuel Macron, who recently met with Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian immigrant without documentation who saved a toddler dangling from a fourth-floor balcony (footage of the rescue went viral). Macron promised Gassama French citizenship and a job with the fire service. It’s a gesture that is more than just a gesture for Gassama: it could be life-changing. Freeing Alice Marie Johnson would too transform her life, and be the obvious right thing to do.

But offering support to one or two individuals who have won the hearts of the public online is a band-aid on a bullet hole. It does nothing to fix the structural problems that have created these individual situations in the first place. In France, racist immigration policies see the descendants of the country’s colonial past in West Africa treated with suspicion and mistrust. In America, a racist justice system sees black mothers imprisoned for life off the back of one nonviolent offence.

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 “We must not have to wait to save a Frenchman to become naturalised as a French citizen,” said Malian athlete Ousmane Diarra on Macron’s meeting with Gassama. Alice Marie Johnson should not have to wait for Kim Kardashian to know she exists for her imprisonment to outrage those who work in America’s criminal justice system.

If one person is helped thanks to Kim Kardashian meeting with Donald Trump, then that’s one better than none. But we shouldn’t forget the thousands of others who face the same discriminatory policies.