This nation was founded as a multi-level apartheid state, with democratic traditions for wealthy white men, a semi-benevolent oligarchy for other white men and white women, and a fascist police state for people of African descent. Over time, agitation — largely led by Black women and men — has pushed the boundaries of freedom in this nation. But we have never entirely broken the fascism that had been with us from the beginning, and now it is resurgent.
We are at a hinge point in our history. Do we descend into complete fascism or do we turn away and establish a full antiracist, multi-racial democracy? So many of the statements and policies made by Trump and his administration edge us toward the former. How can we invest in and build the latter?
Today, the US Senate voted to deny calling witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. This is no surprise, because we can see just how deeply the Republican Senators believe they need the approval of the President and his base. Now, they are on recess for several days, but it is almost certain that within a week, the Senate will vote to acquit.
Each day from now until the President’s inevitable acquittal, I will examine one of his policies, the connection of that policy to a theme from our country’s racist history, and how we can counter these themes to build a true democracy together. These ideas, of course, are not new, and I will do my best to attribute all ideas to the sources from which I draw.
Variation #1 — The Muslim Ban (02/01/2020)
Yesterday, as the Senate was guaranteeing the President a “trial” without witnesses, his administration announced an expansion of his Muslim Ban. This increases the list of affected countries to 13, 11 of which have substantial Muslim populations. The Supreme Court, with its two justices selected by Trump and the other conservative members voting in favor, has already approved this ban, so the President is free to take this action because the justices felt they must defer to “the authority of the presidency.” The ban prevents citizens of these 13 countries who do not already have visas from obtaining either immigrant or non-immigrant visas to come to this country, separating people who have already immigrated here from their families and decreasing overall immigration of people of color.
Our country has a long history of restricting immigration and citizenship. Our first naturalization law allowed “any free white person of ‘good character’ to apply for citizenship. For nearly 100 years, immigration to the United States was almost exclusively from Northern and Western Europe, especially Britain, Ireland, and Germany, and consequently there were no specific immigration exclusions. But when Chinese immigration spiked in the late 19th century, our nation enacted its first immigration ban, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring immigrants from China because of racial animus and the ideas that Chinese people were going to take our jobs, our money, and our nation.
So this policy — restricting the travel of people from specific nations to the US — has a long history. But if we accept that people of one nation, racial group, or religion are no more prone to violence than anyone else, and if we believe that our own nation is doing an adequate job of screening individuals who enter our country, the logic of banning individuals from particular nations falls apart. The problem is that the President, his advisors, and many of his supporters clearly believe that Muslims and people of color are more prone to violence than are white Christians. Other people are scared of terrorism and are willing to believe his lies because he promises to protect them. Still others are willing to go along with these policies because he gives them something else they need.
As a nation, we must embrace the fact that all of us — races, religions, nations of origin — have equal propensities for intelligence, peace, aggression, and all other qualities. Within each group, there will be individuals that have greater or lesser tendencies toward each quality, but as groups those differences go away. And if we embrace this fact, we must eliminate all immigration restrictions based on nation of origin.
Variation #2 — The Border with Mexico (02/02/2020)
This President and his administration have engaged in atrocities at our border with Mexico. They have transformed our asylum system from one that protected vulnerable people to one that turns those people away, sending them back to danger. They have taken children from their families, damaging those children through lengthy separations. They have used threatened deportation as a weapon of terror on immigrant families. The President even threatened to “take the drastic step of shutting down the US southern border.”
This president has wielded these policies in a particular way, attempting to coordinate them as a message that immigration to the US by people of color is no longer welcome. But these policies have a long history here. During the Great Depression, when white Americans were worried about jobs, the government rounded up and deported more than 1 million people of Mexican descent, including American citizens. During World War II, a lack of asylum policies caused the US to turn away Jews fleeing Germany, some of whom later died in the Holocaust. And immigrant detentions and deportations have increased under both recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike, including under President Obama.
But do these policies make us safer? In fact, there is no evidence of a connection between immigration and crime. And when it comes to terrorism, white supremacist terror plots in the US outnumber those coming from Islamic jihadist threats. There is no evidence that people from Latin America or people from elsewhere coming over our border with Mexico are going to make us less safe. But evidence or lack thereof doesn’t prevent politicians, including our president, from using fear as a weapon to motivate people to take up his racist policies.
Instead of demonizing immigrants, our policy should be to embrace immigration. People who immigrate here improve our economic growth and build the fabric of our society. We need a humane immigration policy that decriminalizes immigration offenses — including eliminating immigration detention and deportation — and increases the number of refugees we will welcome.
Variation #3 — Voter suppression (02/03/2020)
The President has spread numerous lies about voter suppression and voter turnout. He continues to disbelieve the intelligence community’s assessments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an attempt to suppress voter turnout. He claims that he would have won the popular vote except for undocumented immigrants voting in California. He set up a commission to allegedly investigate cases of voter fraud which actually existed to validate his lies. These actions build on and make explicit the Republican Party’s recent and ongoing efforts at voter suppression. They have worked to extend the disenfranchisement of people who have committed a crime and then completed their sentence. They have implemented voter ID laws via state legislation, which make it more difficult to vote and disproportionately affect people of color and poor people. And even though it does not directly suppress votes, they have gerrymandered legislative districts to give themselves legislative majorities even when they can’t win a majority of the votes. In one of the most egregious cases, in the 2018 Wisconsin state Assembly races, Republicans won only 46% of the statewide votes but took 64% of the Assembly seats due to gerrymandering.
Of course, these efforts pale in comparison to the original voter suppression — the fact that only white men with large property holdings were allowed to vote when this nation was founded. This, like all efforts at voter suppression, was by design. The wealthy white men who designed our government believed that they were the ones with the requisite knowledge to properly guide the country, and they wanted to maintain their wealth and power. Black people in our country were denied not only the vote — most were denied every aspect of their freedom through the institution of slavery. Over time, the franchise has been gradually, haltingly, and incompletely extended, and sometimes retracted as well. One need look no further than the extension of voting rights to Black citizens after the Civil War, and then their dissolution during Reconstruction.
Why do Republicans argue that we need to be so vigilant about who votes, and thus make voting more difficult? The most popular reason now is to argue, as the President does, that we need to tighten election security because of massive voter fraud. However, even his own disbanded commission found no evidence. When Republicans are being honest, they will admit that depressing voter turnout is about decreasing votes for Democrats — which they equate to suppressing turnout of people of color dnd young people — not a far cry from the old arguments that certain people were not fit to vote.
Instead of limiting voting, our nation needs a massive pIan of voter enfranchisement. We need to give the right to vote to all formerly and currently incarcerated people, as they do in many democracies. We need to put undocumented people on a path to citizenship. We even need to extend the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. By extending the right to vote, not by retracting it, will we extend and strengthen our democracy.
Variation #4: Climate change (02/04/2020)
The Republican Party has denied the reality of climate change for many years, and Donald Trump fits squarely into this tradition, saying, “I am not a believer, and I will, unless somebody can prove something to me, I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again.” He has withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Accord, tried to reverse the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and decreased mileage standards for cars.
These attitudes about climate change may seem separate from Trump’s white supremacy, but they are deeply connected. Extracting fossil fuels for our energy needs is deeply tied to the culture of extractive capitalism that we have created in this country. We take what we feel we need from our planet — our shared home — and push the refuse back into the air, water, and soil. We pull minerals from the ground, cut down trees, insert massive amounts of fertilizer into the soil to produce factory-farmed foods, and dump water water, industrial waste, and post-consumer waste into our environment. And all of this industry is powered by fossil fuels, which we extract from the ground and burn to produce energy, after which we emit the waste product of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This extractive capitalism was developed in tandem with and to justify the institution of slavery in this country, which was a system for extracting work from the bodies of enslaved Black people before discarding them when we regarded them as depleted. And so we produced a “culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless.”
Those who don’t wish to address climate change argue at different levels as to why we should keep burning fossil fuels. Some argue, as the President does, that climate change is a hoax, that it is not happening. Or if they admit that it is happening, they argue that it is a natural cycle, not caused by humans. Or if they admit this, they say we don’t understand how humans are causing it. If they admit that we know climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide, they argue that the cost of addressing this would be too high for our economy, that the damage of climate change will not be as severe as scientists claim. At all of these levels, these claims function to maintain the status quo — to maintain the system of extractive capitalism that we refined as part of the institution of slavery.
Even those who believe we must do something to combat climate change can fall into the trap of doing too little, of tweaking the current system. To truly address climate change, we need a massive program that includes a rising fee on carbon to push emissions lower immediately, paired with revamping our infrastructure to support zero-carbon energy — our power grid, buildings, transportation system, and manufacturing.
Variation #5: Mass incarceration (02/05/2020)
Donald Trump is somewhat mainstream in his beliefs about mass incarceration. He even signed a legal system reform bill that reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Does this mean that the President holds more progressive beliefs on this issue than on others? No, unfortunately this means that mainstream beliefs about mass incarceration are extremely conservative. People on the right and left, Republicans and Democrats, are all complicit in the explosion of the prison population since the 1970s. The “War on Drugs” and tough-on-crime policies have been supported by all Presidents since that time — Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump. Locking up huge numbers of people is simply business as usual in the US now. In 2018, 698 people out of every 100,000 were incarcerated, the highest rate in the world. In this context, reducing mandatory minimum sentences a tiny bit isn’t progressive — it is a drop in the bucket.
Perhaps this aspect of white supremacy is so very mainstream in our culture because it is so intimately tied to the institution of slavery. Michelle Alexander makes this case completely and devastatingly in her book The New Jim Crow, and this connection has been unpacked and explained by numerous scholars over the years. Slavery was abolished and we shifted many of its aspects into the policies of Jim Crow segregation. Once Jim Crow policies were outlawed due to the civil rights movement, many of these same policies were shifted into the ostensibly “color-blind” legal system.
In an earlier essay unpacking the Michelle Alexander book, I summarized how we must destroy the system of mass incarceration: “We need to tear down discriminatory laws and policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, federal ‘Drug War’ funding, and our focus on imprisonment rather than treatment for drug use and minor sales… We must eliminate the ‘invisible punishment’ Alexander discusses by repealing laws that prevent individuals with felony convictions from voting or serving on a jury, or that mandate that they disclose their conviction on job applications. If someone has committed a crime and served their time, their punishment should be complete and they should be able to fully reintegrate into society. Finally, we must examine the biases at the root of the criminal justice system, the immunity that police and prosecutors enjoy, which allows them to work without any consideration about whether their mistakes and misdeeds will come back to haunt them. Immunity has been carved out by the courts, including the Supreme Court, in the past 5 decades, but could be lifted by our lawmakers.” Our discriminatory legal system took centuries to develop — we need to start working now to tear it down.
Today, the Senate voted to acquit President Donald J. Trump in his impeachment trial. Of course, in this trial, he was not charged with anything related to the aspects of white supremacy I have explored. Would the result of the trial have been different if he had been so charged? I don’t think so. The Republicans are too beholden to Trump, too implicated in his policies and decisions, too afraid of his (and their) voting base.
That’s not to say that the charges brought against Trump were unrelated to his whiteness. The brazen way that he pushed for the investigation of a political rival, using institutions of the Presidency for his own political gain, and then argued via his lawyers that his personal political interest is identical to the national interest — that seems most likely to be attempted by a white man, especially a white man raised with wealth from his birth. He assumed that he could do what he wanted and not be held accountable. He was correct, for the moment.
Now the trial is done, and we are guaranteed another year of Trump’s presidency, the damage he will continue to do is enormous. It is now up to us to ensure that he had no longer than that single year — we must do everything in our power to hold him accountable and defeat him this November. But our goal must go beyond that. Whatever happens in the elections this fall, the policies I have laid out here — and other important progressive priorities — will not happen immediately or without further work. We can no longer be complacent. This is not about going back to business as usual. Instead, this must be a moment when we commit to a lifetime of work, electing leaders who will commit to tearing down the policies of white supremacy, and then holding them to that commitment.
We are at a hinge point in our history. Do we descend into complete fascism or do we turn away and establish a full antiracist, multi-racial democracy? Now is our moment to answer this question.
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