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By Ben Jealous
Did you see how former President Donald Trump spent Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend? He made one of the ugliest appeals to racial resentment and white grievance that I have seen in decades.
Trump was speaking at a rally for Arizona Republican officials and candidates who embrace the Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election. That lie has its own racial dimension, because one of its central claims is that the election was stolen from Trump by illegal votes cast by Black and brown voters in battleground states.
His new lie was even more brazenly designed to stoke anger among white right-wing supporters who are already seething about the fact that Joe Biden, and not their hero, is sitting in the Oval Office.
“The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating, white people to determine who lives and who dies,” Trump claimed. “If you’re white, you don’t get the vaccine, or if you’re white, you don’t get therapeutics.”
Trump was lying.
We all know that COVID-19 has hit some American communities harder than others. Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans are, according to the New York Times.
Recognizing that reality, the New York Department of Health published guidelines for health care institutions that simply said that race was one factor, along with age and health conditions like diabetes, that should be considered in deciding how to prioritize treatment.
Given the state of our political climate, it was not surprising that some right-wing media made the false claim that New York health officials had declared that “white people need not apply.” And it was not surprising that Trump was willing to push that lie even further, claiming that white people were being “denigrated” and denied access to health care.
We live at a time when the percentage of the U.S. population that is white is shrinking. Some white people find our increasing diversity scary and threatening. And they are constantly getting a push in that direction from right-wing media figures like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. According to recent polling, Republicans who trust Fox News and far-right news outlets are most likely to believe that America is in danger of losing its “culture” and “identity.”
Trump is the leader of a movement and political party that are trying to build power by stoking fear and anger among right-wing white voters that “their” country is being taken away from them. The Big Lie about the election being stolen plays on those fears. So does Trump’s claim that white people are being discriminated against and denied health care that is going to “other” people.
That’s also why we see so many conservative politicians trying to ban teaching about the ways that racism shaped our history and continues to affect people’s lives. Virginia’s new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order on his first day in office banning the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” like talking about the role of race in American history. Florida Republicans, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, are now trying to pass a law that would ban teaching students or training employees about racism if it makes white students feel “discomfort.”
This is about whitewashing our history to avoid dealing honestly with both our past and present. Many parts of our history are “inherently divisive.” All Americans should feel some “discomfort” with the realities of Jim Crow violence, states’ rights arguments to defend discrimination, and violent resistance to legal equality.
These politicians are drawing on a long history in this country of building power by creating and inflaming racial divisions to prevent solidarity from developing among poor and working-class people of all colors and ethnicities. We should focus on making sure that all Americans have access to the health care they need, not making some white people resentful when the urgent needs of other communities are addressed.
Fear is powerful. Anger and hatred are powerful. They will win some political battles. But I believe in the long run they will lose. America is on the verge of becoming a country in which no one demographic group is dominant. That could be a recipe for the kind of conflict and hostility that people like Trump are stirring up. But it doesn’t have to.
I choose to be more hopeful. I believe our growing diversity and pluralism gives us the opportunity to fulfill the vision of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass that our country’s destiny is to become “the perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family.” But to get there, we will have to defeat Trump and Trumpism. That is our immediate task.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.