President Trump’s vitriolic tweets targeting four female members of Congress who give him no quarter have us debating such words as “racist,” “racism“ and “racially charged” to describe the man, his words and the way some of his supporters have translated his dog whistles into vicious taunts.
To those who question the appropriateness of using the word “racist” to describe the president, my answer is something along the lines of summing up the characteristics of a duck. But before I go there: Some folks are so blinded by their whiteness — an American whiteness that has embraced European ethnics once deemed lesser castes (Irish, Italians, Poles, etc.) — that they can never see the light of reason. I am convinced, however, that there are millions of people who can envision this country as a “gorgeous mosaic,”a term associated with David Dinkins, a mayor of New York City in the 1990s.
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As Americans, we pledge allegiance to “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." But the president and some of his supporters add an asterisk to “all.” They judge entire groups by the color of their skin and the circumstances of their birth and determine them unworthy of all-ness. Added to that, if you’re not ideologically in step with them, then you’re certainly not part of “all” and, at the urging of the president, should find another country to call home.
Mr. Trump is a megalomaniac who sees himself as “the best thing that has happened to Puerto Rico,” a military chieftain who could wipe Afghanistan off the face of the earth “literally in 10 days” and an altruist who tweets, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” But his delusion should not obscure what “racist” is. His rhetoric is racist. His re-election strategy is meant to appeal to racists. Supporters tuned to that frequency hear what he means and respond accordingly.
When you’ve encountered racism, your senses are forever at high alert. For me, the first time was when I was about seven, growing up in Conyers, Ga. All I wanted for a while that summer was to go to the new supermarket — the first in our town — and ride a choo-choo train around the parking lot during grand opening festivities. When an uncle took my sister and me, I immediately left them and leapt into the front car, right behind the clown who was our train conductor. He spun around, called me the n-word and other foul language and ordered me out. That space, he yelled at me, was for white children.
Through experience, people in minority groups have learned that racists don’t always utter pejorative terms. Some of them swear that they like certain blacks or Latinos or fill in the blank. A white physician in Dawson, Ga., in the 1980s still maintained Jim Crow-style separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites. But he assured me that he got along with blacks and even helped one young black man pay for college.
We know racism when we see it. We don’t wait for magic words, and we don’t divine intent. We judge words and deeds and context. By these measures, President Trump is the new Woodrow Wilson, heretofore the poster boy of racist occupants of the White House.
Mr. Trump is not convincing when he uses publicity stunts like championing the cause of A$AP Rocky, a black rapper who has been incarcerated in a Swedish jail because of a street fight there a few weeks ago.
While still singling out the four congresswomen for his Twitter hate, he spoke warmly of the rapper whose advocates include Trump friends Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West. The president conceded that he does not know the rapper, “but I know that he has tremendous support from the African American community.” I take issue with that point, but the president went on to say: “And when I say ‘African American,’ I think I can really say from everybody in this country because we’re all one.” There’s that “all” again, but it clearly excludes his staunch critics, especially Democrats and people of color.
His apologists who express confusion about what’s racist should talk to experts like me. We have known racism like we have known rivers. As the poet Langston Hughes wrote, our souls have grown deep like the rivers. And from that wellspring, we can say: This president quacks like a racist duck.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.