The only time Trump cares about people of color

February 14, 2018

Trump has a history of trying to use people of color as props or scapegoats to win support in the population at large for racist policies, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

IS IT POSSIBLE for Donald Trump to open his mouth and not say something appalling, manipulative or false--or some combination of the above?

Of all his absurd statements, though, few are as twisted as when Trump declares his affinity for people of color--and even claims to speak and act on their behalf.

As someone motivated by an insatiable compulsion for power, it's genuinely questionable whether Trump is capable of empathy at all.

But like when the Misogynist-in-Chief said "nobody has more respect for women than I do," Trump pretending to care about people of color--when racism has been central to his public life for decades--is beyond deceitful. It's bizarre.

Yet Trump has done so repeatedly. There was his comments about racist police violence and the murder of Sandra Bland during an interview with Anderson Cooper in 2015, when he said: "[Y]ou know, I have a great relationship with African-Americans, as you possibly have heard. I just have great respect for them and you know they like me. I like them."

Donald Trump during his State of the Union address
Donald Trump during his State of the Union address

Trump has managed to be shockingly racist even when honoring military veterans of color--like during a White House ceremony honoring Navajo veterans of the Second World War in November, when he referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas."

Not surprisingly, Trump invokes his concern for people of color the most when it's directly related to justifying his reactionary policies. Though Trump seems to have discovered Black unemployment solely so he can falsely claim credit for reducing it, he most frequently talks about his feelings for people of color when making the case for state violence.

He did this during the presidential campaign in 2016 and continues to do so after taking over the White House--arguing that deploying more police to U.S. cities is somehow about saving people of color, not brutalizing and murdering us. His claim in an interview on Fox News with Sean Hannity last October that "minorities want police protection more than anybody" is typical.

BUT IF Trump was a contestant on a game show where the object was to use people of color, our stories and our pain as a means to justify military and police violence against our communities, his State of the Union Address was a lightning round.

There was Trump's recognition of Ji Seong-ho, the Korean man who, after suffering malnutrition and torture at the hands of the North Korean dictatorship, escaped. Ji now resides in South Korea, where he calls attention to human rights abuses by the government in the North.

During his speech, Trump recounted Ji's suffering and his harrowing escape--and then addressed him directly, saying: "Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all."

Trump neglected to mention at this point that he has been loudly discussing the possibility of the "total annihilation" of Ji's home country and its population--as have with his Vice President, Secretary of Defense and Ambassador to the United Nations.

A centerpiece of the State of the Union was Trump pointing to the parents of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, two teenagers murdered by members of the gang MS-13 on Long Island. It was a heartbreaking moment, in which the anguished faces of parents who lost their children to senseless, brutal violence were broadcast to the whole country.

But that moving moment, even in its emotional gravity, raised a number of questions. For one, during the time he took to paint MS-13 as a bloodthirsty foreign invader, Trump failed to note that the gang first formed in the U.S., and its roots lie in the actions of the American government in fueling catastrophic wars in Central America during the 1980s, and then incarcerating and deporting people who fled the violence.

Plus, Trump combined his "concern" for the victims and their families with the assertion that MS-13 members "took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors."

This was one among many falsehoods in Trump's speech. The child migrants coming to the U.S. from El Salvador are fleeing violence by groups like MS-13, not coming to spread it. But the lie was also a naked justification for Trump's recent announcement to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadoran refugees, and for the ongoing, bipartisan attack on child migrants from Central America.

IN ADDITION to using the suffering of people of color to justify war, policing and a crackdown at the border, Trump had a special shout-out for a man who is enforcing those policies.

During the State of the Union, Trump singled out Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Celestino "CJ" Martinez, a 22-year veteran of the Air Force who currently works for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

As with most everything else he claims credit for, Trump didn't invent the device of putting a person of color's face--either as the victim being saved or the foot soldier doing the saving--on racist, repressive policies. The multiracial security state, in which people of color are recruited as officers for racist urban police departments and federal forces like the Border Patrol, is an established feature of the contemporary U.S.

Plus, the idea that the U.S. government is "saving" the oppressed by using its armed police and soldiers to seize control of and destroy their communities is a major theme in the history of the U.S. empire abroad and policing domestically.

The president is merely recycling the old "white man's burden" myth, and taking it to the next, Trumpian level.

Martinez, the parents of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, and Ji Seong-ho all had their own motivations for appearing at Trump's State of the Union speech. Whatever brought them to the U.S. Capitol that night, Trump's motivations were nakedly clear: to cynically use them to promote racist and violent policies.

Trump prefers his people of color as one-dimensional beings--as either victims suffering and hoping to be rescued by policing or war, or as agents in their rescuing--so that he can claim to act in our interests.

It's a bald manipulation aimed at winning support in the population at large for racist--and increasingly unpopular--policies.

And it is yet another reason why activists need to build anti-racist resistance that involves and is led by people of color--as people who suffer the weight of structural oppression, and are capable of strategizing and uniting with anti-racists of all backgrounds to fight back.

The people who run this country will never truly govern in ways that honor the realities of our lives and draw on the agency of oppressed peoples to end our oppression. It's on the left to do that--by mobilizing a challenge to their power.

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