During last night’s rally in Phoenix, Arizona, President Donald Trump further fanned the flames of intolerance and divisiveness—-flames that he has stoked and encouraged throughout his candidacy and presidency. Accompanied by individuals such as Ben Carson, the only black member of his Cabinet, and Alveda King, Martin Luther King’s niece, he appeared to try to offer an image of multi-racialism. It didn’t last long. Contradicting his own efforts at visual diversity, he deliberately mischaracterized his responses to white supremacist, Neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia by omitting his repeated reference to “many sides” as responsible for the violence. Trump failed once again to even mention the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, who was run down by a car in an act of domestic terrorism. Heyer believed in standing up for those who were not heard.
Calling those who would allow Confederate statues to be removed, “weak, weak people,” Trump asserted, “They’re trying to take away our culture, they’re trying to take away our history.” Perhaps most troubling of all was the response of what appeared to be an audience of mostly white supporters, who cheered vociferously in support of ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the implied commitment Trump made in the rally to pardon him. Arpaio was convicted of federal crimes and criminal contempt in defying a court order to end racial profiling tactics against Latinos.
The resurgence of white identity politics and white nationalism in America has brought to the surface what Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin term the “backstage” of two-faced racism. As demonstrated by their research sample drawn from the diaries and journals of over 600 white students from across the nation. On the frontstage white protagonists may present themselves as color blind in front of diverse audiences. But in backstage settings of all white audiences, individuals made blatantly racist comments, actions, and emotions. Such comments were “tolerated, if not encouraged—and sometimes even expected” (p. 91). Trump’s rants, provocative comments, and equivocation regarding white supremacy and the KKK, have energized his base, normalized racist speech, and made it socially acceptable to bring comments and actions from the white backstage to the more diverse frontstage.
Take, for example, the findings of a survey of 600 white, non-Hispanic American adults conducted in 2016 by Ashley Jardina, an assistant professor at Duke University. The participants rated on a scale of 0 to 100 to describe how warm they felt about the Ku Klux Klan and Trump. Surprisingly, 11 percent rated the Klan at 50 degrees are higher and nearly one quarter rated the Klan between 10 and 50. On the same survey, the researcher found that 40 percent described being white as extremely or very important to their identity and 54 percent indicated that whites have a lot to be proud of. In addition, white identifiers were more likely to believe that the increase of racial or ethnic groups is having a negative impact on American culture. They also tended to believe that America owes white people more opportunities than they currently have. These results are consonant with Trump’s lament about the loss of (white) “American culture” in the rally.
Feelings of fear and lack of safety among racial/ethnic minorities, immigrants, LGBT individuals, and members of Muslim and Jewish religious groups have increased under Trump’s administration. Incident after incident reinforces this feeling of alienation and a lack of safety among diverse individuals. A case in point is Trump’s sudden, unscripted twitter announcement that transgender individuals will not be allowed in the military.
Perhaps no more symbolic incident could represent the alienation of the Trump administration from cherished American values than Latino CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s recent interchange in a press conference with Trump’s white adviser Stephen Miller, in which Acosta quoted the Statue of Liberty’s inscription,
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Acosta was responding to the administration’s proposed skill-based immigration plan that would cut legal immigration in half and require that prospective green-card holders learn English before arriving in America. Acosta asked Miller,
Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you’re telling them, you have to speak English? Can’t they speak English when they get here?
When Miller drew on a standard white nationalist argument about the origins of the poem on the Statue of Liberty, saying the verse had been added later, Acosta replied,
You’re saying that does not represent what the country has always thought of as generations coming into this country. Stephen, I’m sorry, that sounds like some national park revisionism. The Statue of Liberty has been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country.
It is a time to be fearful for our democracy. It is a time to speak out for what we believe to be the values of this society. A friend recently reminded us of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s eloquent Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:
It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed. [Wiesel continued]. . . how naive we were. . . the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. . . . Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.