The truly scary thing about Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, which he described at a South Carolina rally on the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wasn’t just that his proposal tramples the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. What is so chilling was the raucous cheering and raised fists that followed the GOP frontrunner’s pronouncement, noise that mustn’t be met with silence even by those of us who aren’t in the cross-hairs at the moment.
The cover of Wednesday’s New York Daily News shows a cartoon of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, with the following text below: “When Trump came for the Mexicans, I did not speak out — as I was not a Mexican. When he came for the Muslims, I did not speak out — as I was not a Muslim. Then he came for me…”
Those words are a riff on the poem “First They Came” by Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, who spoke out against Adolf Hitler when his fascist Nazi regime in Germany began targeting vulnerable minorities in a brutally escalating purge that led to the genocide of 6 million Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust, and the deaths of many others.
The poem is aimed toward those who do not speak out or act against injustice when they aren’t the target. It is warning that African Americans ought to heed, and remember next year when it’s time for the most potent form of our voices — our votes — to be exercised.
Not that Black people haven’t already been put on notice that we have skin in this game too. Just last month Trump retweeted false statistics stating that 80 percent of Whites killed in 2015 have been killed by Black people (FBI statistics from 2014 put the real number at 15 percent of White murder victims being killed by Blacks).
Also in November a Black protester who shouted “Black Lives Matter!” at a rally in Birmingham, Ala. was beaten by Trump supporters, with the candidate later commenting that “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
Furthermore, we mustn’t forget that 23 percent of American Muslims, who number at roughly 2.75 million, identify as Black. One way or another, we’re being caught up in this dragnet of intolerance, along with the Mexicans Trump has vilified as “rapists,” the White women he has bullied, the disabled people he has mocked.
Like it or not, he is tapping into an ugly mood overtaking some quarters of the White electorate, from which he draws most of his supporters. His call to “take the country back” and slogan “Make America Great Again” appeal to those who are depressed by the election — twice — of a Black president (remember how he was Birther-in-Chief?) and the loss of supremacy that represents; daunted by the prospect of White people being in the minority by 2045; and shaken by the recent economic recession.
The growing threat of Islamic extremism scares us all, but for these folk who already feel beset by outsiders the solution is simple: exclude all Muslims “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” (Trump recently walked back his ban proposal to allow American citizens who are Muslim to re-enter the country after traveling. How generous.)
American history is replete with examples of rights and liberties given to and then taken away from groups of people. Recall how the post-Civil War Reconstruction era gave way to the rise of Jim Crow laws imposing segregation and restricting the rights of African Americans to vote? For that matter, recall how the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act back in 2013, a condition Congress has yet to fix?
Then note how a Trump campaign representative in New Hampshire defended the proposed ban on Muslim immigration by saying “What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps,” referring to the shameful internment of Japanese American citizens during that period.
History tends to repeat itself. That can be a good thing, however. In the 2012 presidential election, African Americans came out to the polls in greater numbers than White voters for the first time in history, comprising 13 percent of the electorate. We were energized and 93 percent of us voted for the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. Our vote mattered.
Trump voters may be scary in many ways, but as Nate Silver, editor of FiveThirtyEight.com observed recently, roughly 25 percent of Americans identify as Republican, and Trump is right now polling at just under 30 percent of the GOP vote. Even if you broaden that slice to include the 41 percent of voters who not only are Republican but say that they lean Republican, you are still talking about a segment that is comparable with the Black vote in 2012 — assuming that we are not complacent and have a strong turn-out at the polls again.
Even if Trump flames out between now and the general election (and there’s plenty of reason to believe he will) his rhetoric has moved the GOP’s center rightward. There’s a reason that Ted Cruz, who believes that the Black Lives Matter Movement suggests “embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers,” hesitates to criticize Trump. He’s counting on that flame-out so he can scoop up Trump’s supporters.
Hopefully, America can count on Black voters to show up at the polls next year, as well as voters of all races who believe Trump’s vision of America is unacceptable.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editor and digital media consultant. Follow her on Twitter.