It has, today, come to this: The person holding the title of president of the United States in 2017 decries the loss of “beautiful statues and monuments” to white supremacy, “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.”
This is a new low for a presidency that is remarkable in its ability to sink to new levels of moral and intellectual depravity.
But it is also, sadly, not surprising from Donald Trump, a man who has trafficked in racist behavior from his earliest days as a real estate mogul through his political ascendancy to the White House.
A New, Dangerous Place
It also takes America to a new low, and into a very dangerous place.
We have had presidents in recent history who have proven inadequate to the task of challenging the pillars of white supremacy, who have slyly taken advantage of racial divides to advance themselves politically.
But none of these presidents have taken the script of contemporary white nationalism – with all its exultation of the primacy of white culture – and read it back to the American people, unfiltered, in the way that Trump has in recent days.
Trump, in doing so, has unapologetically poured fuel on the fires of racial hate.
How We Go High
It is tempting, given the wounds that stretch from the lashes from slave masters to the bullets of Ferguson and a too-long list of other cities, to meet fire with fire. There is little doubt, in fact, that the purveyors of hate would relish such an outcome, convinced that it is they who would emerge from the inferno.
What this moment calls for, however, is a resistance that is as morally principled and politically strategic as it is fierce. To recall the words of former First Lady Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”
Almost any of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches would provide inspiration and guidance for this moment, but his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech stands out for me. In this speech, King noted that:
Only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death… in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And… more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation.
And yet, King held fast to this conviction:
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.” He stressed that he was not calling for “sterile passivity” but “a powerful moral force” for social transformation.
This is the true radicalism, as King saw it: not just a rejection of the systems of oppression and the values upon which they are built, but a repudiation of the tools the keepers of this system use to gain and maintain power.
Call it a change of culture, from what King called the “‘isness’ of man’s present nature” to the “eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality,” he said.
We Show Up
To get to this reality, a nation true to its commitment to justice and equality for all people cannot abide the exaltation in its public spaces of people who war against that ideal. Nor can it accept a person as its leader who sees “beauty” in statues honoring people dedicated to the debasement of human beings based on the color of their skin.
So, as Trump continues to triple down on his embrace of the ideology of white nationalism, we must triple down on our work to take down the structures of white supremacy – not just the Confederate statues, but the ways that inequality has worked its way through our economic and political system.
That means we show up for the upcoming fights against government policies that will do real harm to communities of color as well as poor people of all races. We show up to protect the voting rights of people of color. We show up in solidarity with LGBTQ people and immigrants.
We show up for a democracy that belongs to and works for all of the people, not just a small clique of the wealthy and powerful. And in showing up in all of those ways, we will build the movement that will ensure that this Trump nightmare moment will be but a brief interruption in our move toward a more just America.
We must also triple down on a commitment to listen to and understand each other across the divides that our systems of racial inequality and class inequity have created.
There are real reasons we must challenge each others’ beliefs and assumptions as well as real reasons to engage in deep self-examination. But we will not succeed as a movement, if we forget that our unity is essential to our success.