Usually when a white person feels compelled to declare themselves “the least racist person” you’ve ever met, black people know to duck.
President Trump, who bestowed upon himself the “least racist” accolade at a bizarre news conference on February 16, flung an amount of cynical racial exploitation and manipulation during his speech before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night that was unprecedented in recent memory.
It started with the very first words of the speech. “Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains,” he began, as it turned out, incongruously.
Trump immediately referenced acts of vandalism and threats targeting Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish institutions, and “last week’s shooting in Kansas City” of two men from India, one of whom died, which is being investigated by the FBI as a hate crime.
At least referencing those incidents fit the context of his assertion that “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” It still remains that the policy substance behind his attempts to strike a more modulated, presidential tone betrays his willful ignorance and disregard of “our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains.”
That came through in what he said, and particularly tellingly in the subjects he did not broach.
Two days after the five-year anniversary of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Trump once again spit in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement and others working to hold police officers accountable to the communities they serve.
Without addressing the deep concerns communities of color have about police abuse of deadly force, Trump reprised a version of the law-and-order themes that dominated his campaign for the presidency. He said “we must work with – not against – the men and women of law enforcement” and “not drive the wedge of disunity and division.” But he had no words about what law enforcement must do to win the cooperation and trust of the community.
Even more pernicious was his use of African-American crime victims as poster images for his efforts to deport millions of black and brown immigrants who are living peaceably in our communities.
Finding black people to use as a front for anti-immigration policies is a favorite white conservative trope, and Trump used it to full effect in announcing his VOICE – Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement – initiative in the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump did circle back to the topic of civil rights again in his speech when he said, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” Where have we heard that before? From President George W. Bush. And like Bush, Trump used the line not as a call to tackle the structural racism that leads to inequities in funding and resources, but to promote the snake oil of “school choice.”
Earlier in the day, Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos held up the administration’s school choice message for withering ridicule when she released a statement that historically black colleges and universities “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”
Of course, HBCUs came into being in an era in which black students were not allowed to choose to attend most white colleges. But DeVos represents a conservative movement that is less concerned about righting historical wrongs than forcing the present and future to conform to their anti-government and anti-communitarian ideology. For shaping and executing policy for “the civil rights issue of our time,” Trump has picked a person who appears ignorant of civil rights history.
The civil rights issue of our time that Trump did not discuss in his speech was voting rights. That was perhaps because he would have had to explain why it was a good thing for African Americans and other communities of color that the Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, withdrew its opposition this week to a Texas voter identification law that federal courts had ruled was racially discriminatory.
Nor did Trump talk about the racial wealth gap and what the nation should do to close it. That wealth gap was explored in a report released this week by People’s Action Institute and it is huge: the median wealth of white households this decade is about $111,000; for black households, it’s just over $7,000 and for Latino households it’s just over $8,000.
The report talks about the kind of federal infrastructure investments that would not only rebuild the nation’s transportation network and other public assets, but would target communities of color and give them a leg up on the road to wealth-building.
Communities of color also bear the brunt of environmental degradation and the effects of climate change, but Trump boasts of pushing toward construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines, which would further feed the nation’s fossil-fuel addiction and make climate change worse, and loosening environmental regulations.
We also know who will get hurt the most by deep slashes in domestic spending programs to fuel the nearly 10 percent increase in military spending Trump wants. Hint: Many live in the “inner cities” Trump says he wants to save from their “carnage.”
And we know who is going to be disproportionately denied health care if Trump signs off on a Republican proposal to change Medicaid from a needs-based program to a state-administered block grant, which would mean that states could choose to deny care to some poor people to stay within their federal grant.
These, too, are civil rights issues, but the “least racist person” now occupying the White House has no real interest in tackling structural racism and the deep changes that must take place to demolish the structure and repair the damage. Better to be the figurehead for white nationalism and the self-styled purveyors of an “American culture” that is willing to tolerate black and brown people as long as they stay in their place and don’t demand much.