Months into President Obama’s first term, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for, well, attempting to enter his Cambridge home while black. Gates’s renown and the sheer outrageousness of what happened to him turned the incident into a national debate about race, racism, and the excessive policing of people of color.
After he was criticized for saying that Cambridge police “acted stupidly” — his poll numbers among whites dropped — Obama quickly retreated from that statement. He invited Gates and Sergeant James Crowley, the white arresting officer, to the White House for what the media dubbed “a beer summit” near the Rose Garden. Obama said he hoped the unfortunate event could be a “teachable moment” for the nation.
That was 10 years ago this month. After countless episodes of people of color being confronted by police for doing mundane things like sitting in a Starbucks, canvassing for a campaign, or barbecuing in a park, it’s clear how much America learned from that teachable moment.
No matter how extreme things get, with racism in America there’s never a teachable moment.
The president of the United States just told four Democratic congresswomen of color, all American citizens including Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, to “go back” to the countries they came from, conjuring one of the nation’s most detestable racist tropes. At yet another rally, Trump’s rhetoric stoked chants of “Send her back” aimed at Representative Ilhan Omar who, because she is a Somalian-born Muslim, is a target of relentless right-wing venom.
Of course, it’s a variation on the “lock her up” chant directed at Hillary Clinton, but with a distinct difference. He wanted Clinton sent to prison, not out of the country. Because she’s white, her citizenship, her Americanness, was never in question.
Still, at this point Trump could make a noose his campaign logo, and his supporters would scoop up the T-shirts. They are the misbegotten spawn of those grinning white people who enjoyed family picnics at lynchings and collected postcards of desecrated black bodies as treasured souvenirs.
Meanwhile, some are still debating whether Trump is a racist, or whining that calling someone a racist is a far worse offense than being a racist.
That’s why I don’t trust anyone who, after a racist atrocity, says, “This is not who we are.” It may not be what you think our nation is, but this is exactly who we are: petty, hateful, and now governed by a racist cheered on by his openly racist supporters.
On the day after the 2016 presidential election, many white people reacted as if they’d awakened in a strange place. “I don’t recognize my country” was a common refrain. What they were seeing for the first time was a nation that their privilege had always allowed them to ignore.
Understand this: Trump is not an outlier. He is the president, regardless of whatever criminal acts, foreign or domestic, got him there. His rejection three years ago should have been swift. It was not. Instead, we’re entering a grueling campaign season knowing that Trump’s most hateful spew is just getting started. His longstanding racial animosity has metastasized with power that he views as absolute, and he sees this nation’s greatness inextricably bound to whiteness.
So does the vast majority of the party he leads. According to a new USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll, 57 percent of Republicans agree with Trump’s latest racist tweetstorm about the congresswomen of color; nearly one-third “strongly” agree with him.
Elsa Alcala isn’t one of them. A former Texas judge appointed by former governor Rick Perry (now Trump’s secretary of energy), Alcala said in a Facebook post, “Even accepting that Trump has had some successes (and I believe these are few), at his core, his ideology is racism. To me, nothing positive about him could absolve him of his rotten core.”
That core is like lava overflowing from this nation’s foundation of white supremacy and racist subjugation. Children live in cages on American soil. Hate crimes are soaring. And the president is inciting dangerous hatred against a congresswoman and American citizen.
To anyone who thinks Trump does not represent the America they know, you don’t know America at all. The America you think you know would have learned from the horrors of slavery; decades of Jim Crow laws; the Chinese Exclusion Act, this nation’s first anti-immigration law; the genocide of indigenous people and violent theft of their land; and Japanese-Americans’ being forced into internment camps.
If this nation had learned anything from centuries of teachable moments about racism, the America you think you know would not have elected Trump.