By Hazel Trice Edney
In his inaugural address on January 20, President Donald J. Trump quoted the Bible’s premier passage on unity. Yet, when it comes to race – America’s biggest divide – the President has missed nearly every opportunity to make a major impact or statement to that end. This week, Trump visited the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in commemoration of Black History Month. Yet, in the month leading up to Tuesday’s tour of the museum, he has missed major opportunities to show empathy or understanding of the African American struggle for justice.
“The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’ We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable,” he said in front of the millions watching by television around the world and gathered on the Washington Mall for his inauguration. “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag. And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.”
He continued, “So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”
After visiting the African American History Museum, the President said in remarks, “We have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred.” Then he promised to heal the divide. Yet, so far, he has missed nearly every opportunity to impact gross racial disunity across the nation, to attempt to heal racial divides or articulate a way forward. That includes his failure to publically apologize for his insistence that then President Barack Obama, was not a ligitimate citizen of the U.S. – even after Obama’s citizenship was proven.
- Most recently, on February 17, President Trump stood before a vastly White cheering crowd in Charleston South, S.C., ground zero for one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in U. S. history and failed to acknowledge or even mention it. That attack occurred on June 17, 2015 when 21-year-old White supremacist Dylann Roof, brutally murdered nine Black people who had just led him in Bible study and prayer inside the historic “Mother Emanuel” African American Episcopal Church. Included in the slaughtered was the pastor, S.C. State Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Trump was in Charleston for the unveiling of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. But the gravity of the Roof attack sent shock waves around the nation so strong that the S. C. legislature, at the behest of then Republican Gov. Nikki Haley – now Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations – finally agreed to remove the hateful Confederate Flag from the top of the State Capitol building. It was lowered and removed nearly a month after the attack. President Barack Obama delivered the Pinckney eulogy. On Dec. 15, a jury found Roof guilty of 33 counts of federal hate crimes and later sentenced him to death.
- The Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI have reported sharp increases in the rise of hate groups since Trump’s campaign and election; plus a spike in hate crimes and threats predominately against Blacks, Jews and Muslims. Yet, President Trump has failed to speak directly to this issue.
- On Feb. 1, President Trump held a Black History Month “listening session” with Black Republicans at the White House, which he described as “our little breakfast, our little get-together”. At the gathering, hosted by his White House public engagement assistant Omarosa Manigault, Trump generally praised the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., abolitionist Frederick, Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman, and civil rights martyr Rosa Parks, “and millions more Black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact.” But, he mentioned nothing about the specific works of these civil rights leaders; nor the injustices and inequities that continue. Even while listing “the need for safer communities” more law enforcement, more jobs, better wages and better schools, Trump once again failed to say what he would do to deal with these issues, which have historically been exacerbated by racism and White supremacy. “I am proud to honor this heritage, and we’ll be honoring it more and more,” he said.
It was in this meeting that Reverend Darrell Scott, pastor of the New Spirit Revival Center in the Cleveland, in an apparent attempt to impress the President, said he’d been contacted by Chicago gang members, implied that they were Trump supporters and wanted to meet with the President about lowing the “body count”. Rev. Scott later confessed that what he’d said was false.
- Perhaps most notable among missed opportunities are the people who Trump has selected as his chief advisors. While calling for America to unite across divisive political and racial lines, he has appointed Steve Bannon, former head of the alt-right, White supremacist voice Breitbart News, as a chief advisor and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, a man avidly opposed by the civil rights community because of his past racism, including his reputation of embracing the Ku Klux Klan, a reputation that caused him to be rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986.
- Meanwhile, another missed opportunity: President Trump has now offended the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) after he apparently ignored a letter sent to him from the CBC in January. The Jan. 19 “Dear Mr. President-elect” letter from CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) outlined ways the 49-member caucus would like to work with President Trump. During an East Room Press Conference Feb. 16, President Trump, in response to a question from long time White House Radio correspondent April Ryan about whether he will discuss his urban and inner city plans with the CBC, responded by asking her whether “they’re friends of yours” and whether she would set him up a meeting with them. Ryan quickly clarified that she is a reporter and does not set up meetings between politicians. CBC leaders later expressed that the President’s overture was disrespectful at best. It appears the meeting may take place between the CBC and the President in coming weeks.
The pending meeting with the CBC and an HBCU funding executive order said to be on the horizon are yet new opportunities to begin fulfilling his promise. Despite missed opportunities only a month into his presidency, in his official Black History Month proclamation, Trump indicates there may still be hope that he will press toward that racial unity and justice.
He wrote, “As we journey toward a stronger, more united Nation, let us use this commemoration of African American History Month to serve as a reminder of the need for meaningful dialogue and shared commitment to collective action that uplifts and empowers, as well as of the strength, ingenuity, and perseverance required of us in the years to come.”