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Trump plays race card, wins support

Appeals to white racial anxiety

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

One year after Ferguson, Missouri activists drew attention to the issue of police abuse of blacks, the fault lines between blacks’ and whites’ views of race and racism remain as stark as ever. Events over the last week have underscored a continuing deep divide.

Last Sunday, a demonstrator was beaten by a group of Donald Trump supporters after he yelled “Black lives matter” during a Birmingham, Alabama rally. The next day, the presidential candidate sided with his supporters, telling a reporter “…maybe he should have been roughed up.”

The next day, five people demonstrating in protest of a Minneapolis Police Department shooting that killed an unarmed black man were themselves shot by masked assailants in what appears to be part of a wider backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.

Of course, Trump is not the only Republican candidate using divisive rhetoric to appeal to a base of conservative and mostly-white voters. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that the United States should accept Syrian refugees only if they are Christian. And retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said he was opposed to allowing a Muslim American to serve as President.

But Trump stands out with his remarks aimed at the group he has referred to as “the blacks.” He followed his remarks on the beaten Black Lives Matter movement protester with a tweet alleging that blacks are responsible for killing 81 percent of all white homicide victims. In reality, 82 percent of white homicide victims in 2014 were killed by other whites.

The Trump campaign’s attacks against blacks, immigrants, Muslims and refugees prompted both Republican and Democratic commentators to charge that the GOP front runner has fascist tendencies.

“He’s articulating a strain of white racial anxiety and paranoia that’s more popular than most people are willing to accept,” said Maurice Mitchell, an organizer with Black Bird, which provides support to Black Lives Matter and other groups connected to the national Movement for Black Lives. “Because he doesn’t adhere to traditional norms of political decorum, he’s able to say things that other people wouldn’t have.”

Recent research supports Mitchell’s theory of white racial anxiety. In a poll released Nov. 17 by the Public Religion Research Institute titled “Anxiety, Nostalgia and Mistrust,” 60 percent of white working class respondents told researchers that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. This is despite the fact that whites as a group are doing better than blacks and Latinos in education, housing, health care and almost every other major indicator of well-being.

For many of those respondents, Trump may be articulating deeply-held beliefs.

“I sense this kind of collective sigh of relief that someone is bold enough to say the things they’ve been thinking all along,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “I think it’s shocking to many people because in the last few presidential campaigns the racial rhetoric has been more subdued.”

History of race-baiting

Back in the 1976 campaign between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter, Reagan conjured the enduring pop culture image of the “welfare queen,” a woman from the South Side of Chicago who was said to have gamed the system for more than $150,000 using aliases and multiple Social Security numbers. The story put a black female slant on public benefits programs that helped persuade working class whites to support the GOP vision of cutting public spending to bring about smaller government.

Twelve years later, the campaign of George H.W. Bush used images of Willie Horton, a felon who committed a rape after he left a Massachusetts prison on furlough and failed to return. The black-and-white mug shot of the scowling black rapist played to white fear and helped bury the campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Hall says Trump is using the same strategy to solidify support among white working class voters.

“Trump isn’t doing anything particularly new or unique,” he said.

While Trump plays into white fears of immigration, refugees and blacks, black fears may also play into this election cycle, with videos of police shootings circulating on social media.

In one of the more recent videos to surface, dash camera footage showed a Chicago police officer pumping 16 slugs into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he walked away from the officers. The release of the video, which contradicted the cops’ claims that McDonald “lunged” at them, prompted demonstrators to block traffic and shut down a tony Chicago shopping district on Black Friday.

In recent days, Trump’s relations with the Movement for Black Lives took a turn for the worse, with the candidate blaming the group for dissuading a group of influential ministers from meeting with him. Trump offered no proof the movement was behind the pastors’ withdrawal from the meeting, and many pastors cited Trump’s plans to hold a press conference announcing their endorsement as the reason for their withdrawal.

Given the long history of race-baiting in GOP campaigns, it’s not likely that Trump’s relationship with Movement for Black Lives will improve anytime soon. Mitchell says he expects racist rhetoric to intensify as the Movement for Black Lives continues to grow.

“The more we’re effective, the more people like Trump and Fox News will use our organizing to mobilize this group of people,” he said, referring to fearful white voters. “It’s not a marginalized group. It’s more widespread than many people would have imagined.”