Donald Trump and Race

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Jason Williams*

The ascendency of Donald Trump to the highest office in the United States was for some a surprise, and for others something that could have been expected. Trump’s battle to victory was like anything we’ve ever seen before. Trump ran his campaign using well-known tactics that many would consider artifacts of the past, though seemingly they have never gone away. He propelled himself into the White House with the help of racism, xenophobia, and exclusionary white supremacist tactics. During his campaign he uttered racist and xenophobic remarks against Mexicans (and the broader Latino community), referring to them as rapists and criminals. He also delivered hatred against the Muslim community, stating that he would institute a barring of Muslims into the United States. One of his first commentaries to the Black community was delivered to a crowd of mostly whites, where he spoke to Blacks as caricatural, stereotypical helpless urbanites in need of protection against the constantly lurking criminals in their communities. Oblivious to his obvious disconnect from the reality of Black life in the United States, Trump continued on with this mantra, iterating to Blacks, “What do you got to lose?” He faced immediate backlash regarding his uninformed, badly crafted pivot to the Black vote.

On the Reemergence of Pre-1960s White Supremacy

A key hint toward the rise of pre-1960s white supremacy came in the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s election. During a speech to the Heritage Foundation, high-ranking GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell explicitly noted that his top priority was to derail Obama’s Presidency making him a one-term president. Meanwhile, a series of vicious, racist campaigns aimed against President Obama in many GOP-dominated jurisdictions displayed a diametrically opposed reality to the notion of post-racialism so often claimed in the aftermath of the election. The biggest grassroots group in opposition to President Obama’s election was of course the Tea Party, which was essentially a neo-racist political operation for the reemergence of a white prosperous America. In the midterm election following President Obama’s election, the Tea Party did great damage to establishment GOP politics by managing to get dozens of their own representatives into the Capitol. The ascendency of the Tea Party into the Capitol increased and dramatized the divides between the president and the GOP, thus leading to many conflicts and inactivity in Washington. To many racialized individuals, that conflict illuminated the racial disdain the GOP held against President Obama, as their refusal to work with him was unprecedented.

Also stirring in the backdrop of the Tea Party was the now President-elect, Donald Trump himself. Along with other birthers, Trump continuously iterated his confusion and disbelief regarding President Obama’s citizenship, and thus his fitness to be president. Trump’s vicious campaign against the legitimacy of President Obama’s election to the White House traveled great lengths. For instance, he frequently bragged about hiring individuals who traveled to Hawaii, and he questioned President Obama’s attendance at Columbia and Harvard while issuing an award to anyone who could retrieve his college transcripts. Even though the birther movement was at best a racist attempt to delegitimize President Obama’s election, most mainstream sources failed to conceptualize it as such, thus normalizing the birther movement.

The normalization of birtherism is what led to the Trump presidency. As mentioned above, Trump utilized countless racist tactics to galvanize support while on the campaign trail. His most prominent thoughts, of course, were against Mexicans and for the building of a wall along the Southern border.  Trump played to white economic insecurity to gain the offensive on immigration, claiming that Mexicans were coming to the United States to steal jobs from hardworking Americans—a tactic that has always worked with working poor and middle-class whites and that is of course a legacy of slavery, when the capitalists turned working-class whites against their African American counterparts. For centuries, sadly, this tactic has continued to push working poor and middle-class whites to vote against their own interests. However, Trump for these individuals represents a great-white-hope, a person who could return America to the good old days and “Make America Great Again.” Certainly many African Americans could not conceive of a period in which America was great, given their racial-ethnic positioning throughout America’s history. Thus, Trump’s very campaign represented a kind of racism that many thought to be long gone but that was in truth still alive, just sidelined and awaiting to be reactivated. Trump especially gained the loyalty of GOP supporters in the aftermath of the Dallas shooting of police officers by a Black man, when he claimed to be the “law-and-order candidate” and thus sparked the fire of a GOP tactic used in the not-so-distant past.

Backlash against Black Lives Matter

The future of race relations in the United States can easily be conceptualized based on Trump’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted during the primaries. Trump casted Sen. Bernie Sanders as weak after BLM protestors crashed one of his rallies during the primaries. He explicitly stated that BLM would never come to one of his rallies and take over because he would not give up his mic. Such a comment gives one an inside look into how Trump understands the BLM protests. Nevertheless, his indifference to BLM came with scores of dog whistle statements that would further galvanize his base.  Soon after his comments there were countless episodes in which Trump supporters physically attacked BLM protestors who would show up at Trump rallies.

Trump’s response to these incidents was hardly a disciplining of his supporters. Rather, he seemed to encourage his supporters to continue physically attacking protestors. In fact, at a rally in Las Vegas Trump lamented that he would like to punch a protestor in the face, also mentioning how in the good old days, protestors would be treated differently. The reference clearly was to how African Americans were treated during the Civil Rights struggle—physically beaten, dehumanized, and casted beyond the margins of democracy. Trump does not try to hide his racist intentions; rather he boasts about them, and in return he is able to galvanize his base and gain additional support for his platform. During a rally in Ohio, Trump also stated his belief that BLM had instigated some of the killings against police—once again exacerbating some of the already existing hateful rhetoric against BLM.

His comments against BLM added to the increasingly baseless rhetoric used with regards to many of the easily provable claims boasted by BLM protestors. In many ways Trump’s campaign ushered America into a post-truth society, as facts and sensible debate became artifacts of a past America that once embraced intellect and the pursuit of truth.

The Anti-Minority Presidency

Immediately following Trump’s election to the White House, the number of anti-minority incidents spiked throughout the nation. For instance, in late November 2016, Newsweek reported 900 hate incidents in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The Southern Poverty Law Center also published a report, titled “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” which also illuminates the extent of the increase in hate-oriented incidents against minorities. The report cites cases of harassment against Blacks and those perceived to be immigrants in K-12 schools, religious buildings, and other public spaces. Many individuals subjected to this post-election harassment indicated that these experiences were somewhat unimaginable to them—that in 2016, they would have never expected to see or experience such terroristic attacks.

The election of Trump has emboldened white racists to publicly showcase their intentions against minorities. In fact, many white nationalist groups explicitly supported Trump, and continued to do so even after he disavowed them because of the pressure by the media. Vox reported that Trump’s win was largely due to racism and sexism. Citing from an academic paper, the article concluded that race was more significant than economic dissatisfaction, thus concluding that racism was the clear factor that determined the election.

Given Trump’s birther beginnings and his historical distaste toward minorities (i.e., see the cases of Central Park Five, of housing discrimination, etc.), one can predict with near certainty that his presidency will be unmatched in the modern era of American politics. His election seems to emanate a kind of old white resentment against scapegoated minorities that have little to do with the contemporary state of white insecurity and more to do with the fact that capitalists have given up on them too.  As a result, a Trump administration will not only continue to scapegoat the vulnerable for its own political gain, but it will also remain silent against the countless expressions of racism now emanating as a result of his hateful campaign. To make matters worse, Trump decided to appoint Sen. Jeff Sessions to the United States Attorneys General position. Sessions, himself a bigot with a racist past, is unlikely to take up (or take seriously) causes regarding civil rights and equality. He has a colorful past of being ferociously anti-Black and shares Trump’s anti-immigration sentiment. Civil rights activists and grassroots organizations have begun campaigns to block Sessions ascendency to the top law enforcement position in the land. Sadly, appointees like Sessions illuminate what the future will look like if Trump is able to confirm his cabinet.

Now more than ever there needs to be solidarity amongst marginalized peoples and allies. Since the November 2016 election Trump has shown an unlikelihood of changing his ways and his inability to be a president for all Americans. Instead, he has embraced the vicious and inhumane policy aspirations of the GOP, which will disproportionately affect minorities, women, and poor people. He has vowed to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, increase support for law enforcement, and strengthen the so-called free market. Trump’s promise to America is one that will further concentrate political power into the hands of powerful rich white men, and his cabinet appointments have shown just that. Such a presidency will send race relations into an unprecedented frenzy. Many people are reporting to be fearful, and frankly they have every right to be afraid. But such fear should not lay dormant; it should be used as fuel to resist Trump and his party every step of the way.

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Jason M. Williams (Williamsjas@mail.montclair.edu) is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Montclair State University. He is also involved in several public research and information forums, such as The Hampton Institution, where he serves as chair of the criminal justice department. Most recently, he as coedited (with C. A. Jones) A Critical Analysis of Race and the Administration of Justice (Cognella Academic Press, 2015).

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Header image (left): “Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” by Johnny Silvercloud, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.

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