Fail­ure to con­front racism costs US

Orlando Sentinel - - Opinion - Editorials re­flect the opin­ion of the Chicago Tri­bune Edi­to­rial Board.

Days af­ter a white po­lice of­fi­cer killed a plead­ing Black man by kneel­ing on his neck, a prom­i­nent Amer­i­can gave voice to the Black com­mu­nity’s an­guish: “Racism in Amer­ica is like dust in the air. It seems in­vis­i­ble — even if you’re chok­ing on it — un­til you let the sun in. Then you see it’s ev­ery­where.

As long as we keep shin­ing that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wher­ever it lands.”

That was Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar, one of many ath­letes, writ­ers, pro­test­ers and oth­ers seek­ing to ex­plain, heal, de­mand an end to po­lice abuse in mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties en­gen­dered by dis­crim­i­na­tion.

A co­me­dian said this af­ter Ge­orge Floyd’s killing: “The po­lice are, in some re­spects, a bor­der pa­trol, and they pa­trol the bor­der be­tween the two Amer­i­cas” (Jon Ste­wart).

A ten­nis star said this: “The worst part is this is noth­ing new, it’s just filmed” (Ser­ena Wil­liams). A politi­cian said this: “We’re still wrestling with Amer­ica’s orig­i­nal sin” (Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell). Even a pan­cake syrup brand con­fronted his­tory: “We rec­og­nize Aunt Jemima’s ori­gins are based on a racial stereo­type,” Quaker Oats ac­knowl­edged, an­nounc­ing plans to change the brand’s name and im­age.

There is one voice of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion miss­ing, yet it’s the one this na­tion should be hear­ing most. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump isn’t ab­sent from the de­bate, but he’s cho­sen to side against anger at po­lice mis­con­duct, rather than staunchly sup­port­ing peace­ful protests and re­flect­ing on how to make Amer­ica a fairer so­ci­ety. Trump, cam­paign­ing for re­elec­tion, is call­ing for law and or­der in a loud voice, while whis­per­ing plat­i­tudes about lib­erty for all.

That was Trump’s mes­sage when he spoke for more than 20 min­utes this week about po­lice re­form with­out men­tion­ing Ge­orge Floyd by name or cit­ing racism, avoid­ing an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity to con­tem­plate Amer­ica’s his­tory of in­jus­tice. “Amer­i­cans want law and or­der,” he in­sisted. “They de­mand law and or­der. They may not say it, they may not be talk­ing about it, but that’s what they want. Some of them don’t even know that’s what they want, but that’s what they want.”

Trump em­bod­ied his point on June 1 when he walked from the White House to St. John’s Epis­co­pal Church for a photo op min­utes af­ter au­thor­i­ties used smoke can­is­ters and pep­per spray to drive pro­test­ers from the area. To Trump, law-abid­ing demon­stra­tions are in­dis­tin­guish­able from loot­ing, while po­lice abuse of mi­nor­ity Amer­i­cans is dis­con­nected from the larger is­sue of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

He blames a “tiny” num­ber of bad of­fi­cers for mis­con­duct and leaves it at that. No, in fact he doesn’t leave it at that: Amid dis­cus­sions of race re­la­tions and de­bates about slav­ery’s legacy, Trump has found ways to ex­press ac­tive dis­in­ter­est in lead­ing an ex­plo­ration of na­tional heal­ing and con­tri­tion.

He sched­uled a cam­paign rally in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, on June 19, the day known as June­teenth, which marks the end of slav­ery. Tulsa was the site of a mas­sacre of Black res­i­dents by white mobs in 1921. Af­ter be­ing called out for the tim­ing, Trump changed the rally date to June 20 “out of re­spect for the hol­i­day,” when he might have made June­teenth and the up­com­ing 100th an­niver­sary of the Tulsa killings a fo­cal point of his ap­pear­ance (with so­cial dis­tanc­ing).

June­teenth isn’t widely cel­e­brated out­side of the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, but that’s changing with more busi­nesses clos­ing for the day in com­mem­o­ra­tion in the af­ter­math of Floyd’s death. Trump could have been in Tulsa on an im­por­tant day. It could have meant some­thing to na­tional heal­ing. In­stead, his dis­in­ter­est lingers.

These are not ac­ci­den­tal omis­sions. Trump’s record on is­sues re­lated to race and big­otry is lit­tered with in­sults, care­less rhetoric and bizarre equiv­o­ca­tions. On Mex­i­can mi­grants, he said as a can­di­date: “When Mex­ico sends its peo­ple, they’re not send­ing their best. They’re not send­ing you. They’re not send­ing you. They’re send­ing peo­ple that have lots of prob­lems, and they’re bring­ing those prob­lems with us. They’re bring­ing drugs. They’re bring­ing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I as­sume, are good peo­ple.”

He told four con­gres­sional Democrats, all women of color, to “go back” to their home­lands. Af­ter the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Char­lottesvill­e, Vir­ginia, led to ri­ot­ing, Trump failed to force­fully de­nounce white supremacy, claim­ing he saw “ha­tred, big­otry and vi­o­lence on many sides, on many sides.”

Trump likes to con­sider him­self a fighter, and po­lit­i­cally he needs to ap­peal to white con­ser­va­tive vot­ers. But those cal­cu­la­tions shouldn’t mean an ab­ro­ga­tion of a solemn duty to lead and unite Amer­i­cans.

Af­ter Char­lottesvill­e, how­ever, we gave up on the idea of Trump be­ing able to guide the na­tion as its voice of moral au­thor­ity. He could read from a teleprompt­er about love and tol­er­ance, we said, but he couldn’t speak from the heart on the con­tro­versy in Char­lottesvill­e with­out sound­ing like an apol­o­gist for white su­prem­a­cists. So he should stop try­ing, we said.

He has gained no dis­cernible aware­ness since then. We say this with­out plea­sure. This page, re­peat­edly, has sup­ported Trump’s poli­cies and po­si­tions that are good for the coun­try and re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing turn-of-the-screw daily bombs he lobs. This, how­ever, is not a time to hold back.

The cost to the na­tion of Trump’s fail­ure to lead on is­sues of race isn’t know­able. If his lack of com­mit­ment to equal­ity em­bold­ens racists, he’s con­tribut­ing to a tragedy. If his dis­in­ter­est cul­mi­nates in missed op­por­tu­ni­ties — the in­spir­ing speech he doesn’t give, the leg­is­la­tion that dies, the mo­men­tum for progress that fiz­zles — Trump is ob­struct­ing a heal­ing the na­tion yearns to achieve.

His base lis­tens to him. Yet he won’t call on them to re­flect.

Ev­ery pres­i­dent has the power to act as a moral bea­con. In Trump’s case, the light is off. This is sad for the coun­try.

The good news is there are plenty of other Amer­i­cans will­ing to speak their minds, share their ex­pe­ri­ences and help take the coun­try in a more just di­rec­tion. While lament­ing Trump’s fail­ures, we should lis­ten to those voices.

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