Failure to confront racism costs US
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.