Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Race to the Bottom on Race

At this point, Dr. Martin Luther King's spinning in his grave could be used as wind power to light up the western hemisphere.

President Trump's comments at a meeting with Congressional leaders about immigration on Friday smashed through the moral floor that this administration has set ten stories below the White House and established yet another embarrassing standard in ugliness for an administration that struggles to betray any semblance of normality.

Those defending the president like to point out that he's just saying things that people say around their dinner table, or that he's giving a truthful version of events or that he's not a racist because he contributed to African-American causes or has socialized with African-Americans.

This is hogwash. People are complicated and can present different faces to different crowds. I know anti-Semitic people, some of whom are relatives, who hug me when we meet and can share a meal with me without saying anything offensive. But when it comes to their true views, they are not shy about believing that what they say about the most vile stereotypes is absolutely true. They're still ant-Semites, and it informs their worldview.

In addition, I attended Franklin High School, which was, and still is, one of the most integrated schools in New Jersey. I saw genuine tolerance, friendship and love in the hallways, classrooms and homes.  But I also saw racist stereotyping and denigration at events where one group, either whites or African-Americans, dominated. I saw racial violence that was caused by the same social problems we have today. I experienced Antisemitism.

Many people who harbor racist ideas and attitudes can hide them, but when they get angry or frustrated, as the president does every hour, then the emotional turmoil that lies beneath the skin bubbles up and you find out what a person truly believes. Plus, if people are speaking this way around their dinner tables--denigrating other countries and labeling their people--then we need to do a better job educating our citizens about respecting other cultures and people.

So it is with President Trump. He says racist things. Over and over. That leads me to believe that he is a racist in that he sees whiteness as a virtue, as superior, and the standard by which all other races should be measured. He has equated the tactics and motivations of white supremacists and those groups these white supremacists would like to obliterate. He has questioned the fairness of a Federal Judge based on the fact that the judge was a Mexican-American. He questioned whether the sitting president of the United States was, in fact, a citizen.

These are disgraceful, racist views and none of them is defensible if taken separately. Taken in the aggregate, they are an indictment of the president's character and his ability to lead this country on this issue.

But as with most eruptions associated with this president, there is even more ignorance below the surface. His characterization of Haiti and African countries betrays the uninformed, but largely prevalent idea, that immigrants bring their former country's culture and attitudes with them when they come to the United States. He's saying that they must like the poverty and political dysfunction or economic stagnation or effects of past imperialism that infects their countries. That they cannot possibly become good Americans. That they take American jobs, marry American women, suckle at the American taxpayer's teat.

This is a conversation we've had before. It was discriminatory then and it's discriminatory now.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the offending countries were Italy, Russia, Greece and other European nations who were sending us Anarchists, Socialists, Jews and revolutionaries who were supposedly unsuited for life in a democracy. Before that, in the 1840s, Ireland sent us their starving people, who were referred to, incongruously, yet reflecting true native ignorance, as White Niggers. Miraculously, those tired, poor un-Americans were able to contribute mightily to the nation and enable it to become a beacon of hope and freedom.

The president's ignorance betrays an unfortunately all-American, and increasingly all-Western world attitude that reinforces stereotypes and leads to more hatred. He long ago gave up any promise that he would be a leader who would unify the country and present a positive, forward message that we could rally behind. Instead, we are going backwards.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, please make sure that you remind the world that we are a great people being led by a small man.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest


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