President Donald Trump’s call for American unity in his first State of the Union address struck an us-versus-them tone for many minorities, raising questions as to what extent Americans are put off by a leader who continually draws criticism as bigoted and xenophobic.
For many people of color, Trump’s address before Congress on Tuesday night hardly reflected a shift in his ideology or his bruising style of governance. To them, the president simply softened what he’s been saying all along, particularly when it comes to immigration, and sought to add a veneer of tolerance by using the stories of people of color to illustrate his points.
“After more than a year of toxic policies and attacks on marginalized communities, the time for hoping Trump might change is long over,” said Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson. “Behaving like an adult for one speech doesn’t change those facts.”
In taking credit for a drop in black unemployment, Trump showcased a black welder’s journey from unemployment to a meaningful career. At one point, he reiterated his disgust for NFL players’ national anthem protests against systemic racism by praising a 12-year-old white boy’s act of patriotism. And he conflated immigration with urban gun violence by highlighting two Long Island families who were victimized by gang members who were in the country illegally.
The result was a rhetorical throwback to mean-spirited race baiting of the past, said Brookings Institute research fellow Andre Perry.
“You replace ‘immigrant’ with ‘black person,’ and you’re talking 1950s rhetoric,” Perry said. “If you’re a person of color, it wasn’t a dog whistle — it was a direct attack. It wasn’t that long ago that blacks and women were not full citizens, but we were members of society denied rights under the law.”
While some praised Trump for staying on message and striking a more presidential tone, others pointed out that his tone contradicted his actions.
“President Trump can pause his Twitter habits long enough to deliver a prepared speech to a national TV audience, but isn’t doing anything real to bring us together or improve the lives of everyday Americans,” Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said in a statement.
Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, Maxine Waters of California and Al Green of Texas — all Democrats who have criticized Trump— decided to skip the speech entirely.
“I’m part of those who decided that we would protest outside as a matter of principle to say to the president, ‘We disapprove of what you’re doing,’” Green said Tuesday night.
Others wore black to show their displeasure, and several wore sashes or ties made of African Kente cloth, a nod to the president’s reference to African nations as “shithole countries.” Some wore buttons bearing the name of Recy Taylor, a black Alabama woman gang raped by white men during the Jim Crow era; she died in late December at age 97.
“There was nothing to clap for, nothing to be happy about, nothing to smile about and nothing to be applauding about,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat who ordered the Recy Taylor buttons. “He takes credit for things he has no right to take credit for. He really did not speak to how racist he’s been or xenophobic he’s been or sexist he’s been, so he really didn’t speak to the things that I expected him to or would want him to have addressed.”
As Trump touted the low black unemployment rate, several black members of Congress sat stone-faced amid cheers from their Republican colleagues.
The speech, historically a list of priorities for presidents, was also about what Trump didn’t say. There was scant reference to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, no mention of the racial violence that erupted last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, nor of the evolving #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
The president has denied that he is a racist. However, soon after his inauguration, he signed an executive order banning people from several Muslim countries from coming to America, prompting protests nationwide. To kickoff Black History Month last February, he clumsily referenced 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive. He defended white supremacists after they rallied in Charlottesville, blaming “both sides” for deadly violence there. And he has repeatedly labeled immigrants as criminal and targeted so-called sanctuary cities who refuse to aid federal law enforcement.
Such actions, Perry said, can’t be covered by “platitudes of American togetherness that mask rabid, structural racism and really doesn’t include black people, Latinos, immigrants and others.”
“It’s outrageous that people aren’t seeing the hypocrisy,” Perry added.
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