From the birther lie to the Central Park Five, J.L. Whitehead discusses Trump’s lifelong assault on people of color that we see manifesting in his presidency
Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering where we went wrong as a nation. I think about how we wound up so polarized; how tribalism has become the new norm. I have a window seat to the invisible fight that people are having not just with this administration, but amongst themselves.
What we are seeing could be construed as a systematic war on people of color and people of varying faiths. I’ve had this conversation with many people and as expected, some people agree with me and some people don’t.
But to place this in proper perspective, one needs to recognize the weapons that are being used to repress people of color. This war didn’t begin with the inauguration of Donald Trump, but it has culminated under him.
Trump uses rhetoric rooted in discrimination and prejudice. He speaks life to bigotry in the guise of safety and security. He has used patriotism as a means to repress those that don’t look like him. And people that defend him will say that he cares about people of color simply because the economy is booming and unemployment for African Americans is at an all-time low; even though the groundwork for the uptick in the economy started long before he took office.
It’s unfortunate that he attacks…and attacks…and attacks.
And yet, many people that don’t bear the brunt of his attacks dismiss his actions as simply being misinterpreted; perhaps even misunderstood.
But as a person of color, I understand his message all too well. I’ve heard it often enough in my lifetime.
So if you think that Trump cares about people of color, let’s check off a *partial* list of things that he has done to prove otherwise:
“Hate is What We Need”
On May 1, 1989, real estate magnate Donald Trump called for the return of the death penalty when he took out full-page advertisements in all four of the city’s major newspapers. Trump said he wanted the “criminals of every age” who were accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park 12 days earlier “to be afraid”. The advertisement, which cost an estimated $85,000, said, in part, “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer … Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. … How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” In a 1989 interview with CNN, Trump said to Larry King: “The problem with our society is the victim has absolutely no rights and the criminal has unbelievable rights” and that “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.”
Donald Trump was the primary promulgator of the birther lie against the nation’s first African-American president. Trump intentionally fanned flames of doubt among the populace about the country of origin of Barack Obama, stoking the fire of racism that is now an out-of-control blaze.
Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville riot in 2017 created a false equivalency between Nazi skinheads and peaceful protesters. There are “fine people on both sides,” he said. The fact that the president of this country can say that there is good on both sides when white nationalists with torches marched to protect white supremacy instead of condemning that action is mortifying.
The Muslim Ban
The travel ban imposed on Muslims was condemned initially because of what he campaigned on. He had made a promise to his supporters that he would do everything he could to keep the undesirables out of this country; a promise that was based primarily on bigotry. He made people of the Muslim faith the “them” in this war on terrorism, branding an entire religion as the source of discontentment for the 35 – 40% that voted for him, when in fact radical Islam is an aberrant sect of the faith.
Black Lives Don’t Matter
Trump declared war on the players of the NFL when they decided to take a knee to protest police brutality and violence. He turned this into a political issue stating that they were somehow disrespecting the flag when in reality; it wasn’t the flag that they were protesting. It never was. Not once did he address the reason why these men decided to take a knee in the first place; almost as if the reason why they took a knee was inconsequential. Instead, they were portrayed as spoiled, over-paid, black athletes that hated their country. The reality is that black lives, just like all life, should matter…and to the president, as sad as it is to say, it simply doesn’t.
The United States did respond to the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria. But the response was disproportionate to the help that was needed as these were and are citizens of this country. Too many died because the optics portrayed us as not caring enough. Yes, the president and his wife did fly down in the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated the island, and yes, FEMA was in place to help with those that needed help. But a year later, our people are still hurting and the estimates of the citizens that perished are well over one thousand, possibly going as high as four thousand.
One of the biggest issues facing our nation today is gun violence and our lack of response to address it. How does this translate into an issue that indirectly impacts people of color? It’s not the issue itself but the way that it is treated which further divides this country. Black men have been systematically shot and killed for holding what could barely be construed as a weapon or for reaching into a pocket, while we have a domestic terrorism issue that no one seems to want to talk about until the next mass shooting by a troubled white man.
People of color are not seen as people. We are seen as something other. Black men are deemed a threat before we can even open our mouths to say who and what we are. And there are people who say that we bring up this topic again and again just to hear ourselves talk; almost as if we enjoy bringing up something that in theory should have been addressed years ago despite the possibility that this topic may make you feel uncomfortable.
I assure you, dying from being misinterpreted as a threat is a little bit more important than how you feel because you don’t want to hear about it. Black men have always been deemed as a threat. We have to watch how we speak to appear nonthreatening; we have to watch our body language when we’re in stores and restaurants, all to make you feel safe. Police are used as weapons against us in the course of upholding law, order and civility – even when calls should never have been placed to begin with because no laws were broken.
People of color have been called “animals”, “rapists” and murderers. And we all know that once you dehumanize an individual, it is easier to place yourself above them. When you do not regard a person of color as having the same characteristics as you, it is easier to deny them the same privileges that you enjoy and perhaps take for granted.
At the same time, we are not afforded the luxury of becoming angry about an unjust system. Responding with emotion is not an option because once we do, we then become the very thing that you have accused us of being all along, not realizing that the way you treat a person has everything to do with how they respond.
I say all of this because it needs to be said. Diversity is something that should be embraced and cherished, because it is what makes us who we are. Admittedly, I don’t know everything there is to know about every culture outside of my own, but I am willing to learn and partake in that.
We cannot nor should we subscribe to an ideology that tears us apart at the seams. We have so much to learn from one another. We have so much to give to one another. But it initially starts with opening our minds and hearts.
I do not think that this president has the capacity to be the kind of leader that he should be. I think that the need for praise and loyalty supersedes common sense and dignity for the office that he holds.
I will end with this quote by James Baldwin and this pretty much sums up how I feel about race relations in this country:
“How can I trust what you say when I see what you do?”
~ J.L. Whitehead