President Donald Trump spoke to a group of law enforcement officials in New York on Friday, July 28th, encouraging them to go after people of color. His message, in part, was telling them “Don’t be too nice,” to suspects taken into custody for questioning. Law enforcement officials in the background had smiles on their faces and cheered as he said:
They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into blood stained killing fields. They’re animals. We cannot tolerate…as a society, the spilling of innocent, young, wonderful, vibrant people….But I have a simple message today for every gang member and criminal alien that are threatening so violently our people. We will find you. We will arrest you. We will jail you. And we will deport you.
It is easy to imagine whom Trump is referring to as “animals” who should be deported here. (He has famously done something similar before in referencing later-found-innocent black teenagers in a New York City Central Park rape case.) As Natalia Molina shows in How Race is Made in America, these are old racial scripts Trump is calling upon. Racial scripts are racial messages used over and over again throughout history in ways that can be reused and understood for “new rounds of dehumanization and demonization in the next generation or even the next debate” (Molina p. 7).
The racialization of Latinos as heavily or disproportionately gang members, as criminal aliens, and as animals has been circulating in this country for a very long time now as has been documented by Feagin and Cobas in Latinos Facing Racism. So, it is easy to imagine who Trump plans to “find,” “arrest,” “jail,” and “deport” in his “simple message” to “every gang member and criminal alien.”
President Trump then went on to say:
And when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them being thrown in. Rough. I said, Please. Don’t. Be. Too. Nice. [Laughter] Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head….I said, you can take the hand away okay.” [Police Cheers and clapping].
This message by the president contributes to systemic racism in US society, defined by Feagin and Cobas as:
[T]he persisting racial hierarchy, the discriminatory practices, and the racist institutions integral to the long-term white domination of Americans of color. This group domination involves not only racialized institutions, the macro level of oppression, but also the micro-level reality of a great many whites repeatedly discriminating in blatant, subtle, and covert ways against people of color in everyday settings (p. 14).
Yet another generation of Latinos continues to be “othered” and to experience systemic racism in American society because the president is openly encouraging law enforcement officials to vilify them. Viewing Latinos with this racialized framing underscores Leo R. Chavez’s argument that Latinos have been socially constructed as a threat in the U.S., and Trump’s remarks to law enforcement are only the latest example from the bully pulpit. In a time of increasing presidential pronouncements and tweets as a way to make public policy, it is easy to see how Trump is dehumanizing brown and black males in his statement to police.
My heart aches for adolescent Latino, Native American, Black, and other youth of color who are coming of age in a country that continues to find ways to dehumanize them. I think of my cousins, my brothers, and my oldest son who is darker than my youngest son and I fear for them all. As Native American author Sherman Alexie states in his memoir:
I never directly feared for my life and career during a Republican presidency until Trump won office” (p. 228).
This normalizing of the calls for violence against people of color by the state in President Trump’s speech to the police should cause us all to fear for our lives, families, and friends. It should cause us to fear for our very country.
While Trump’s remarks drew condemnation from law enforcement leadership across the country, the cheering of the rank-and-file in the moment to his racist and repugnant comments remains deeply disturbing. Similarly, during the election his supporters also cheered and encouraged this type of racialized hate. For Latinos and other people of color who have lived with this kind of vilification for generations, it is likely we should expect more of this to come from the president and from those who have been emboldened by what Leslie H. Picca and Joe Feagin call frontstage racism. These are very scary times we are living in for people of color when hate is being openly promoted and supported by our government leaders from the most powerful man in the U.S. down to our street-level (police) bureaucrats.