It is time to dismantle the talking point that the everyday racism of Donald Trump is a mischaracterization of the United States. The presidency of Donald Trump has certainly inspired a more blatantly racist and hateful atmosphere, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking it created the hate we see. Whether one makes this claim just to feel included in the United States or whether one actually believes it, this fabrication is extremely dangerous. How we respond to Donald Trump’s racism matters. When people portray the president’s blatant racism as somehow “un-American,” we can take it as a moment to discuss how racism is actually woven deep into the fabric of U.S. society.
When Donald Trump attacked a majority-Black district of Baltimore in his usual fashion via Twitter, people were quick to condemn him. Trump called the district of House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Strong emotional responses across the nation created a massive uproar.
CNN anchor Victor Blackwell was choked up and nearly came to tears defending his home during a segment. He addressed the language that the president had repeatedly used, including the word “infested.” He lamented, “‘Infested.’ That’s usually reserved for references to rodents and insects, but we’ve seen the president invoke infestation to criticize lawmakers before.” And with regard to Trump’s comment that “no human would want to live there” Blackwell responded, “You know who did, Mr. President? I did.” Blackwell struggled to finish the rest of his response, but he concluded by saying:
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“There are challenges, no doubt, but people are proud of their community. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but people get up and go to work there. They care for their families there. They love their children who pledge allegiance to the flag just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans, too.” (Emphasis added.)
Blackwell clearly hoped that this appeal to patriotism would elicit understanding from viewers by reminding them that Black people are also worthy of Americanness. The United States, which positions itself as exceptional among the rest of the world, is grounded in immeasurable violence and oppression, and these things are built into its form of nationalism. Therefore, to say Black people are worthy of empire via any association to the same categories that kill us is to give strength to a weapon pointed directly at us.
Trump’s racist comments about Baltimore shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. We’ve known about Trump’s blatant racism since before he was elected president.
Another example of this sort of appeal for inclusion lies in the earlier point Blackwell made, with regard to the members of Congress Trump has attacked.
When President Trump attacked Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, also known as “the Squad,” he asked, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?” He painted the four as incapable of being a part of the United States, telling them to return to “countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all).” His xenophobia highlights the fact that some of us will never actually be able to fully access the benefits of U.S. citizenship, despite what’s supposed to be a birthright.
The members defended themselves by, in part, reaffirming their oath to office and to the United States, and many others also defended the members by using the language of citizenship and patriotism. (All four are, of course, citizens, and three of them have been their entire lives.) But in order to think through what was really behind Trump’s remarks, we must set patriotism aside. The argument about who is and who isn’t loyal to the United States takes us away from the conversation we should be having about the state itself. The United States was built on racism; this country is part of the problem, not the solution.
Arguing that we are citizens too, pledging allegiance, and making a patriotic case in favor of the nation is a deadly risk. Our deaths are built into the very inner workings of this country that people are seemingly hoping to find favor with. We’re not helping the cause of undocumented people being thrown in prisons by defending ourselves under the terms of citizenship; we’re drawing an even deeper line between “us” and “them.” This is a desire proven ineffective by the many wars fought, performances given, inventions created, and other pioneering feats people have accomplished for the United States just to be rejected. More loyalty to the nation is not going to secure us more rights, more life, or more safety; it never has.
The country that we desire doesn’t exist yet, and building that society is the work we should be doing. Liberation is not simply something that will come through a series of small reforms to the status quo. Liberation will come at the expense of the everyday misery of a capitalist society filled with oppressive institutions.
Trump is representative of a constituency trying to maintain what the United States has always been: a site of exploitation, brutality and oppression. To try to fight with that constituency over redefining what “American” means and to try to prove ourselves worthy of citizenship is to play a losing game.
Our energy could be put toward something more fulfilling and real, instead of foraging for scraps of democracy in the woods of a deadly society. What we’re familiar with is not a democracy, and if we’re ever going to see anything like what we imagine democracy to be, we have to let go of the familiar.
The process of understanding many of the institutions around us as problems and not reformable necessities is the beginning of freedom. We need to stop trying to convince a nation that’s never accepted us that we’re good enough. It’s time to let the nation go so we can truly flourish.