Opinion

Renée Graham

Trump tries to divide and conquer communities of color

Associated Press

The Trump administration cares no more about Asian-American enrollment at Harvard than it does about protecting black and Hispanic workers from an influx of immigrants. What it wants is to keep this nation, its institutions and workforce, as white as possible.

In their relentless effort to deracinate America, President Trump and his minions have launched an assault on two depressingly predictable targets — affirmative action and immigration. And they’re relying on one of the oldest ploys in the political playbook: Divide and conquer. They want to divide communities of color to better conquer them.

Led by a longtime affirmative action foe, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice plans to use its civil rights division for a new project investigating and possibly pursuing legal action against universities whose admissions policies it regards as discriminatory against white applicants. DOJ is also closely watching a lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-Americans in favor of other racial minorities. Edward Blum, a conservative and staunch opponent of affirmative action, brought the suit.

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Then Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser for policy, stepped out of his crypt to pitch a points-based immigration proposal, sponsored by two Republican senators, Tom Cotton and David Perdue. This, he claimed with a barely suppressed smirk, would alleviate the “massive displacement of African-American and Hispanic workers,” by allowing skilled, self-supporting, English-speaking immigrants to get green cards. Over time, this would slice immigration in half; in other words, if those “huddled masses yearning to be free” want into this country, they’d better sign up for English-as-a-second-language class.

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What this menace of an administration really wants are far fewer immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia, and countries south of our border — a “debrowning” of America. It’s how Trump, with his venomous vision of an America made “great” again, wants to whitewash the complexion of a country otherwise on pace to be populated mostly by people of color by mid-century. His concerns extend only as far as what will most benefit white people — the richer, the better — and disenfranchise everyone else.

To achieve that, this administration is pitting Asian-Americans against African-Americans and Hispanics, and African-Americans and Hispanics against immigrants, especially those of color.

History’s villains have always understood the power of keeping various groups as adversaries. In the colonial era, poor white indentured servants had more in common with black slaves, and fought together in class rebellions against wealthy white landowners. Yet, as Ibram X. Kendi writes in his National Book Award winner, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” rich whites believed that “poor whites and enslaved blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse.” To address this, “they divided and conquered by creating more white privileges.” Poor whites might have been low, but so long as they were kept higher than enslaved blacks, wealthy whites had the leverage they needed to solidify their own authority.

Some Asian-American organizations have already made it clear that they won’t be used as a wedge to denigrate other minority groups in a fight against affirmative action. At the same time, the severe Trump-endorsed immigration bill won’t ensure job security for black or Hispanic workers by removing the threat of unskilled immigrant competition. This administration has no interest in an America made more equitable for people of color regardless of their nation of origin.

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It’s a dog whistle with a peal so piercing everyone recognizes it, and the primary reason why bottom-feeders in Trump’s base remain unshakably loyal. They’ve never cared if he drains the swamp so long as he drags under those they despise. Don’t get it twisted. Trump hasn’t suddenly grown a heart or conscience. His contemptuous world view, kneaded by Miller and Steve Bannon, seeks to foment anger and acrimony between groups always forced to fight for crumbs as white supremacy thrives, entrenched and unchecked.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.