I wrote the following essay for NMID’s weekly newsletter and am posting it on NMID because I believe we as a country must have a conversation about race. Our president, and his actions, are forcing us to. In a democracy, which relies on a vigorous competition of ideas and viewpoints, one of journalism’s duties is to prompt and join in on discussions about uncomfortable subjects. And race, at least for a significant portion of our country’s population, is uncomfortable. Hopefully this essay will invite such a discussion. Feel free to comment, but keep it respectful. No name calling.
In the past week our president has taunted four first-year congresswomen of color, tweeting they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” as if they are not fully American.
He escalated the attack Wednesday at a North Carolina campaign rally, with the crowd chanting “send her back,” a taunt ostensibly meant for Somali-born U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
I’m used to angry jibes and taunting in politics, especially on social media. But this is different, and nastier, and familiar. It’s racist.
I’m a white Southerner raised from boyhood on the dog whistles and non-verbal code of white-speak between certain politicians and their audiences. Not all white people understand the code, for sure, but just enough of the right people need to receive the message for the communication to accomplish its goal.
I’m not the only one to recognize this. On Thursday, the Associated Press observed that “Not since George Wallace’s campaign in 1968 has a presidential candidate — and certainly not an incumbent president — put racial polarization at the center of his call to voters.”
Our president appears to think it’s smart politics, telling reporters, “I do think I am winning the political fight. I think I am winning it by a lot.”
He could prove an adept political prognosticator when the 2020 election rolls around. In the meantime, he is forcing us, particularly those of us who are white, to openly confront the problem of racism in our country.
Some people defending the president’s tweets say it was never his intent to make it about race. To those people, as a white Southerner, I’d say appeals to “intent” are often the preserve of the clueless or the artfully disingenuous.
The former includes people with the luxury of not having to contemplate our country’s fraught history with race. They cannot imagine, through a lack of curiosity, and sometimes married to a personal network of mostly white friends and family, that a person can experience life differently than they do simply because of the color of their skin. So they give the speaker a pass without considering the impact those statements or actions can have on others whose lives are different than theirs.
The other group includes liars, dissemblers and political opportunists who understand this nation’s history much better than most and, more importantly, how easy it is to exploit long buried tensions for political gain.
Let me state for the record: I believe this president knows what he is doing. It is a cynical game he is playing. This is a man, after all, who questioned repeatedly over several years whether his black predecessor, Barack Obama, was a U.S. citizen. And more recently, whether a Mexican American judge could be fair after he stereotyped Mexicans as rapists and murderers.
As I ruminated on those events and the president’s behavior this week, I experienced an epiphany: This president reminds me of the racial bigots I’ve encountered over the years.
You might not like that word – bigot. I don’t care if you do or don’t.
As a journalist who covers politics, you also might be asking, aren’t you revealing your political preferences?
First, one of the jobs of a journalist is to speak truth to power, especially when the most powerful man in our nation appeals not to the American credo of “Out of many, one” but to divisions based on where we are from and the color of our skin. (I haven’t seen or heard him taunt white immigrants from European countries.)
Yes, journalists have a responsibility to be fair. But, more importantly, we are called to name things truthfully.
Secondly, what we are confronting as a nation has little to do with politics, partisanship or ideology. It has to do with morality, how we treat others who we believe might be different than us, and the kind of country we want our children to live in. These are deep human questions, not partisan or political ones.
This president, with his racist, divisive rhetoric, is asking us all a profound question: What type of country do we want for our children and their children and their children’s children? A country divided by where our ancestors came from and what we look like, or a country that celebrates a hopeful vision of people from around the world, with different religious faiths, of varying political world views and economic circumstances, coming together in a rich, beautiful mosaic.
It’s up to all of us to decide how to answer these questions for ourselves.