On Tuesday morning, President Trump toured the Smithsonian’s new African-American History Museum with Dr. Lonnie Bunch, one of America’s foremost historians of the African-American experience. Accompanied by almost the same small group of African-Americans who joined him at a Black church in Detroit on the campaign trail, this photo op served to confirm how few Black friends Trump has in Washington.
But this visit also serves to locate Trump within this nation’s African-American history.
For everyone disoriented by the first month of Trump’s presidency, the perspective of the African-American experience may be clarifying. Trump is not the first American politician to exploit the racial and nativist fears of a divided nation only to talk about unifying the country after he has gained power. This has been the recurring theme of redemption since the late 19th century. When Donald Trump embraced Martin Luther King’s niece while quoting her uncle’s favorite passage of scripture, he joined a long line of White supremacists who believe America is for everyone as long as White men are in power.
After America’s Civil War, federal Reconstruction sought to expand the political power of citizenship to formerly enslaved African-Americans. But the imagined threat of Black political power was so great that the Ku Klux Klan formed to attack White people who voted with Black people. This terrorist campaign, coupled with the White supremacy campaign of Southern Democrats, attacked inter-racial coalitions and threatened Black voters until the South was “redeemed” from Reconstruction. At the turn of the century, White preachers and politicians blessed the dawn of the Jim Crow era with speeches about our need to unite as a nation and live in peace.
In the 1920s, a resurgent Klan added immigrants, Catholics and unruly women to its list of targets, even as Jim Crow politicians formed strong alliances with Wall Street. The civil rights movement—a Second Reconstruction—was really about the political power of a new coalition of civil rights, labor, immigrants, women and poor folks of every shade. Dr. King was killed while working to organize a poor people’s campaign to demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968 appealed to racial hate and fear without using racist language. But once his “Southern Strategy” had restored power to White people, a Moral Majority emerged to celebrate the “redemption” of America and racial harmony.
Dr. King did not become an American icon with a national holiday until his revolutionary vision for a redistribution of wealth and power had been domesticated by Ronald Reagan’s administration into a call for each individual to be judged by the content of their character. A White man had to be in power for America to honor the prophet we murdered.
Black history teaches us that White supremacy isn’t about mean words. It’s about policy and who has power. It’s not enough to condemn hateful words, as the President did in his remarks at the museum. Our leadership must disavow the policies that perpetuate race and class disparities. President Trump has refused to do this, as have Senator Tim Scott and Ben Carson, the African-Americans who joined him at the museum.
We cannot reconstruct democracy in America without disavowing efforts to resegregate public schools through voucher programs, neighborhood schools and attacks on public funding. We cannot address disparities in our criminal justice system without disavowing the racially charged War on Drugs, mandatory minimum laws and the death penalty.
We must disavow policies that deny a living wage while 62 million Americans struggle to survive on less than $15 an hour. 54% of African-Americans earn less than a living wage and many Southern states do not have a minimum wage 150 years after the end of slavery.
Every aspect of institutional racism must be disavowed to complete the work of Reconstruction in America, but maybe none is more important than the current attack on voting rights. Senator Scott, who represents South Carolina, has refused to support the restoration of the Voting Rights Act for three and half years, because he knows his party’s power in the South depends on dividing diverse coalitions in the South.
Nothing could be more racist than the cynical participation of a Black man in an effort to maintain White political control in a nation where Whites are quickly becoming one among many minorities. These are not conservative or liberal issues; they are moral issues that deserve the same condemnation that President Trump directed at those who have threatened Jewish community centers.
It’s past time for a grown up conversation about race in America. Let’s stop talking about whether Trump is a racist. Let’s stop asking whether a White man who has power will call for peace. Of course he will. White men in his position always have. But Black history has taught us that White supremacy will concede nothing without a fight. It’s time for a third Reconstruction to fight for policy that will make America a multi-ethnic democracy where we learn to share power across race and class lines.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II is President of Repairers of the Breach and author of The Third Reconstruction.