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Trump’s Attacks on Baltimore Are Rooted in Racism and White Supremacy

President Trump is facing widespread outrage after describing Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

President Trump is facing widespread outrage after describing Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” in tweets attacking Congressmember Elijah Cummings, one of the most prominent African-American lawmakers in Washington. Trump tweeted that Cummings’s district is “considered the Worst in the USA,” and said “no human being would want to live there.” Trump’s initial tweets came after Fox News ran a story about Baltimore and after Cummings criticized the conditions of immigration jails along the Mexican border. Officials across Baltimore and Maryland denounced the president’s remarks, and The Baltimore Sun responded by publishing an editorial titled “Better to have a few rats than to be one.” We speak with Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and host of a local radio show in Baltimore, and Dayvon Love, director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.


AMY GOODMAN: President Trump is facing widespread outrage after describing Baltimore as a, quote, “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Trump made the remark in a tweet attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings, one of the most prominent African-American lawmakers in Washington. Trump tweeted Baltimore is, quote, “considered the Worst in the USA,” and “no human being would want to live there.” Cummings, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has represented Maryland’s 7th District, which includes parts of Baltimore, since 1996. Trump’s initial tweets came after Fox News ran a story about Baltimore and after Cummings criticized the conditions of immigration jails along the Mexican border.

Officials across Baltimore and Maryland denounced the president’s remarks. The Baltimore Sun responded by publishing an editorial headlined “Better to have a few rats than to be one.” On Saturday, CNN anchor Victor Blackwell discussed Trump’s comments about his hometown, Baltimore.

VICTOR BLACKWELL: “Infested.” That’s usually reserved for references to rodents and insects, but we’ve seen the president invoke infestation to criticize lawmakers before. You see a pattern here? Donald Trump has tweeted more than 43,000 times. He has insulted thousands of people, many different types of people. But when he tweets about “infestation,” it’s about black and brown people. … “Infested,” he says. The president says about Congressman Cummings’ district —

AMY GOODMAN: Blackwell then choked up.

VICTOR BLACKWELL: — that no human would want to live there. You know who did, Mr. President? I did, from the day I was brought home from the hospital to the day I left for college. And a lot of people I care about still do. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was CNN anchor Victor Blackwell on air on Saturday.

Trump responded to the widespread criticism by accusing Congressmember Elijah Cummings of being racist, in a tweet Sunday. This all comes two weeks after Trump unleashed a racist attack on four progressive congresswomen of color, telling them to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” The tweets were aimed at Congressmembers Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. All four are U.S. citizens, three of the four born in the United States.

We go now to Baltimore, where we’re joined by two guests. Kaye Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, host of a local radio show in Baltimore. And Dayvon Love is director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dayvon Love, let’s begin with you. Your response to this attack on Baltimore. “No human would want to live there,” President Trump said.

DAYVON LOVE: Well, one of the things I think is important in putting Trump’s tweets in perspective is that we live in a society structured on racism and white supremacy. And the things that Trump says in his tweets are actually — excuse me — widely held beliefs in the American collective consciousness, notions of black inferiority that span from things like black folks being inherently criminal, black folks being inherently intellectually inferior, black folks being inherently pathological. And so, you know — and the way that that shows up in our society is through popular narrations and representation of black people as pathological.

And so, what I think is important in terms of my own reaction to Trump’s tweets, it’s important to note that what he’s expressing is a societal belief, that he’s not exceptional in the sense that he believes it. Now, it may be it’s exceptional that he would express it in the way that he did, in such open fashion. But I think that the tweets itself, I think, are demonstrative of a societal belief that animates the institutions of civil society, that really create a circumstance where particularly black folks in the kinds of communities that he’s talking about experience a feeling of folks, both by way of policies and rhetoric, that don’t deem them as human beings. And so, he’s capitulating to a base that believes those things more overtly than the kind of subconscious belief that I think permeates all of American civil society.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Kaye Wise Whitehead, your response, as Trump talks about this infestation, as Victor Blackwell so movingly pointed out in his commentary on his show on CNN? You go back to see when he uses the word “infested” with people of color, like John Lewis, he attacked and talked about infestation; of course, talking about the “Squad,” the congresswomen of color, saying they should “go back” to their “crime infested” countries — of course, they are from the United States, three of the four of them; and then talking about Baltimore in the way he did, with The Baltimore Sun’s headline being “We would rather have a few rats than be one” [“Better to have a few rats than to be one”].

KAYE WISE WHITEHEAD: What is interesting is that Donald Trump is harkening back to a time when black people were categorized as being subhuman. Using infestation, something you don’t want, something that’s despicable, something that’s unneeded, something that you want to get rid of, and using that particular language whenever he talks about black and brown people, is something that is not new. It goes back to a time of slavery. That is how black people have been categorized in this country. That is at the root and the heart of white supremacy and white nationalism.

We can also take it back a little bit farther. We can talk about how in Germany the Jews were called an infestation. We can talk about in Rwanda there was a notion of infestation. This is what — the term you use whenever you’re talking about people that are the minority in the population, the population that’s not wanted, the population that’s not considered to be in any way equal to or superior to the dominant majority.

Donald Trump is not giving us new language. It is not surprising. What it is is more frustrating than anything else, because what he has unleashed in this country, what he has allowed to have happen, what he has given the OK to, is this notion that you can say the deep-rooted racist things that you think about, the things you probably say at your kitchen table. You can now say them out loud. You can now call the cops on black people who are simply living their lives. You can now tell black people to “go back” and get out of the country. You can now tell brown people, “You don’t belong here.” What he is reminding us of is this sense that white men, some white men in particular, believe that America only belongs to people who look like them. That is what we’re fighting against. That’s what the real, real battle is against, the heart and soul of what this country is going to look like once his presidency is done, because Donald Trump can be removed from office, but what he has unleashed will remain, unless we fight it ’til the very end.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s company owns some — what? — 9,000 rental units, has been called a slumlord, in Maryland, many mice-infested. The company has been cited for — what? — 200 code violations. Can you talk a little about that?

KAYE WISE WHITEHEAD: Well, this notion that with Jared Kushner and the ownership — I mean, we’re talking about the 9,000 units, but I think it was really 170 code violations. It then harkens back to a time that the people that are pointing the fingers, the people that are pointing out what is wrong, are the people who are actually perpetuating the stereotypes. Jared Kushner has done no work to clean up the area. Donald Trump has been called on to put a policy and plan, an urban renewal policy, to come to Baltimore, to not just use Baltimore as something to point your finger at, Baltimore as something to laugh at, Baltimore as something to attack, but coming up with a plan to help American cities, and which Baltimore is one of many that could use a policy and a plan for urban renewal and for going forward.

What Donald Trump is doing and what Jared Kushner has done has only added to the problem. It’s made Baltimore the center and taken our focus off what the real issue is, which is what Congressman Elijah Cummings will be doing this week. Once again, what Donald Trump is doing is taking a chance to direct us away from what we should be focused on, which is impeachment, which is getting him out of office, which is figuring out exactly what he’s doing, which is thinking about what’s happening with Russia. No, instead, we’re now defending ourselves. We’re doing campaigns, hashtag #WeAreBaltimore, to remind the world that we are part of America and that we are important and that we matter. Again, it’s just a policy that he has. It’s a way to have us defend, a way to have us step back, a way to have us be hurt, to have us cry, rather than have us attack.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney speaking on Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. Host Margaret Brennan questioned Mulvaney about Trump’s comments.

MARGARET BRENNAN: “No human being would want to live there.”

MICK MULVANEY: When Donald Trump attacks people —

MARGARET BRENNAN: This is being perceived as racist. Do you understand why?

MICK MULVANEY: I understand why, but that doesn’t mean that it’s racist. The president is pushing back against what he sees as wrong. It’s how he’s done it in the past, and he’ll continue to do it in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Dayvon Love, if you could respond? And also, you know, the same time he is tweeting up this storm right through today, the president wants to move ahead with pouring billions and billions and billions of dollars into a wall on the southern border, rather than the infrastructure of this country.

DAYVON LOVE: Well, so, a couple things. One is, is that particularly the phrase “No human being would want to live there,” what that speaks to is the fact that in this society, when we’re, you know, again, talking about the system of racism and white supremacy, we’re talking about the fact that notions of humanity have often been reserved for white folks, that white folks have been able to construct a universe by which their collective interests are understood as universal and central. And so the idea that no human being would want to live there is a part of this kind of negrophobic aspect of our society, where all the kind of negative stereotypes are projected onto black people, but in many ways white folks in their communities experience, you know, or engage in many of the behaviors that we criminalize. And when you think about things like the notion of a drug dealer — right? — and that the kind of societal image — right? — is of black men, but when you think about, you know, all the white men that are selling drugs on college campuses around the United States, they’re not demonized in that same way, because, again, their collective interests are understood as normative, as they’re understood as kind of the central aspect of the American ethos.

Furthermore, particularly in terms of, you know, all the investments that the president has made as it relates to so-called border security, I think it’s important to understand that that is the remnants or the manifestation, the extension of the system of white supremacy, the idea of being secure — right? — from the criminalized immigrants that come into the United States. That language is language that is borrowed right from — you know, when you look at Birth of a Nation, first major motion picture film in the United States, that was screened in the White House, that represented a black man — a white person in blackface — a black man as a brute, and one of the central storylines was him as a rapist. Right? So, we’re talking about the language that the president and the conservatives use about immigrants falls directly from the playbook of white supremacy that characterizes black people as inherently criminal, as inherently dangerous, as inherently pathological.

And so — and I want to highlight something that Dr. Whitehead said that I think is really important, is that this is not new. Right? This is not something that is emerging out of nowhere, that this rhetoric and this discourse is part and parcel of a society that is run in such a way that allows for folks like Jared Kushner to be able to have properties and treat black folks with a level of contempt, because that is just the very nature of the society that we live in. And so, we have to attack the system of white supremacy and the prevailing notions of black inferiority that animate the institutions in such a way that then not only impact black people, but as we’re seeing with the migrant crisis, with the immigration crisis on the border, impacts those policies, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Whitehead, I assume this make it a little difficult to call out longtime elected officials, who you believe are fair to criticize, to work on your city, not to mention other cities around the country.

KAYE WISE WHITEHEAD: Now, what’s interesting, Amy, is that on my radio show, Today with Dr. Kaye on WEAA, we talk about this every day. We talk about our politicians. We talk about what’s wrong with the city. We work to push to hold our politicians accountable. When we’re dealing with the water crisis over in Poe Homes, when we’re dealing with what’s happening with the heating situation in the schools, when we’re talking about the state of violence and crime in our neighborhoods, we want to hold our politicians’ feet to the fire. But unfortunately, at this moment, we can’t do that. At this moment, we actually cannot call out our politicians, because what the president has done, he’s put us all in this defense mode where we have to talk about how we are all Baltimore.

My hope is that as we move past this moment, and as he turns his lens to somewhere else — because we know Donald Trump’s playbook is that you focus on something, use racist tropes to attack it, the world begins to defend, and while we’re defending, he’s laughing, he’s gleeful, and then he turns to his next target. Like, we know that’s how he operates. My hope is that we use this moment to talk about what we can do — and I mean we all collectively — all of us here in Baltimore, all the people who say they love Baltimore, all the politicians who are working for Baltimore — we use this as a moment to come up with a strategy on how we can move this city forth. I know that Dayvon Love and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, for example, Erricka Bridgeford and the Baltimore Ceasefire — we have organizations right here in this city doing the hard work. I want us to continue to do the hard work, because Baltimore will survive. We’re resilient. We can deal with the lens from the president, and we can still move forward and be better.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Professor Kaye Wise Whitehead of Loyola University Maryland and Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, speaking to us from Baltimore — Baltimore, Maryland.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, close to 1,400 Russians are arrested in Moscow, and a leading dissident, in jail — was he poisoned? Stay with us.

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