In November 2016 – shortly after Donald Trump was elected nearly three years ago – I wrote the following article for The New Statesman about his use of racism as a political strategy in order to appeal to the grievances of white Americans who feel that their sense of identity is under threat.
As I wrote then: “Although using division for votes is nothing new for Republicans, Trump appears to be acting directly from the Southern Strategy playbook – a Nixonian strategy from the Seventies based on the exploitation of racial tensions and divisive politics aimed at increasing discord in order to maintain Republican presence.” (Isn’t it fascinating that Trump has been compared to Nixon in many other ways over these last 3 years…? Perhaps his fate will be the same…)
Trump’s racist/racial/racialized agenda has always been clear to me. Unlike others – such as George Conway, husband of Trump mouthpiece Kellyanne and Trump critic/foe, who just finally concluded this past weekend that Trump is indeed a racist and wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about his new found discovery – I have not been surprised nor in denial about the depths of his animus towards people of color. Dismayed, often. Saddened at times. But shocked? Absolutely not. I know racism when I see it. My very survival depends on that.
Trump’s racism is long and old, and it certainly has never been hard to miss. If you can’t cast your mind back to 1989 and his front page newspaper adverts calling for the death penalty to be brought back and used in the case of the so-called Central Park Five – the group of 5 young black men who were wrongfully imprisoned and later exonerated for the rape of a female jogger in Central Park – you should at least be able to remember that he actually got President Barack Obama to produce a copy of his actual birth certificate after insisting – in a bizarre conspiracy theory – that there was no way Obama was actually American. Trump has been at this game for quite some time now. And even though he been proven very wrong – as he is on most things – he is good at it.
As the country grapples with Trump’s most recent insults, this time aimed at Reps. Ayana Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, four freshmen Democratic women of color in Congress (all American, one foreign-born) who he tweeted should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” I have gone back to review this piece. Not only is it prescient, but it seems to get even more accurate the longer Trump is in office.
The wonderful instagram community @disruptivewoman – which features dynamic, pioneering women – was kind enough to feature me as one of their interviewees. The question they asked was “what problem in the world do you want to solve?”. What a great question! I had a lot to say on that one. See my answer is below:
I want to see an end of racism. Racism needs to be returned to the trashcan from where it came. I am a staunch anti-racist, and I despise racism as a concept, a phenomenon, a philosophy and a reality.
The need to judge, categorise and assign value to people based on the colour of their skin (which none of us are responsible for, nor can we do anything about) has caused – and continues to cause – untold problems in our world, as has the need to make racially-based determinations about whose culture is superior to another.
Racism is full of so many logical inaccuracies and fallacies that if we really sat down to unpick it intellectually, it would soon be exposed for the nonsense that it is.
Unfortunately, we don’t do that. We don’t unpick why racism is a false, and utterly flawed, ideology. We don’t unpick what makes it illogical and nonsensical. Instead, we talk about racism like it’s an issue solely of opinion or morality, when it really just comes down to an illogical, incorrect and ignorant understanding of humanity and the world.
For example, let’s think about this seriously… Is there a correlation between your eye colour and your behaviour? Or the colour of your hair and your intelligence? So, why should there be a correlation between the colour of someone’s skin and the level of their intelligence? Or their behaviour? Or the value of their humanity?
From the ages of 3 – 11, I went to a great co-ed, multicultural prep school in South East London. In that school, there were children of all ethnic backgrounds, hence kids of a variety of shades of skin. We all played happily together, we were friends (as much as children of a certain age can be friends!) and we studied alongside each other without problems.
My closest friends were English, Scottish, Irish, Ghanian/English, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican, and Nigerian. Some were Hindu, some Christian, some Muslim some of no religion. I grew up knowing that we were all just kids, all unique individuals with different personalities, all coming from families with different cultures and heritages. The differences in our skin tones were just due to where our families hailed from – the closer to the equator your family was, the darker your skin would be. Melanin is function of human biology function, designed to protect us from the sun. It’s that simple.
No child is born racist. Racism is learned, and it is taught. It is man-made. If you put a bunch of babies together and had them interact with each other in a non-racist environment, I am confident that they would not start hating each other on the basis of the colour of their skin.
The good thing is that since racism is created, taught and learned, we can also un-teach it, un-learn it, and create a world without it.
It wasn’t until I was about 12 that I really started to understand that there are people on this earth who think that having darker or lighter skin makes you a better or worse human being, and that that idea literally can be the difference between life and death.
I first went to South Africa in 1996, not long after the end of apartheid and then lived in South Africa in 2006. I have seen the ravages of apartheid, which saw black people subjugated and treated in such despicable and wicked ways on the basis of this mental illness which we call racism.
I went to the Apartheid Museum in Joburg, one of the most compelling and moving museums I’ve ever been to, and saw the long list of laws which had been put in place under apartheid to stop South Africans from participating fully in their own land. I was struck by the undertone of fear, insecurity and a need to dominate which underpinned those laws and that system.
I have also lived in America for a number of years, and similarly have seen the deep, deep damage that racism wreaks on individuals as well as to society as a whole.
I continue to see the stark differences in education, in the application of the law, in life expectancy, in healthcare, in how the police treat African Americans and in professional settings between those that the racist system has deemed worthy and those that it doesn’t.
I will never forget the murder of Stephen Lawrence in the UK, a man who would be 40 years old today if a bunch of racists had not cut his life short – simply because they did not like the way he looked. I remember thinking “wow, he was just on his way to school – something which I do every day – and he was killed because his skin was dark”. And then to see the police totally bungle the case, resulting in a total lack of justice for his murder, simply because THEY also believed that the colour of his skin meant something untoward… I mean, WTF?!
Racism has been used to justify the exploitation of millions of people around the world. It has been used to justify the pillaging of countries (see: the transatlantic slave trade/apartheid/the holocaust/colonialism/imperialism). And it continues to be used as a tool by self-serving people and politicians to justify their fears, insecurities, ill-treatment and bullying of others. That’s on a state and systematic level.
On a micro level, there is still everyday racism. The question is: why should my life, as a black woman, be inconvenienced because other people are unable to police their own imagination, or to challenge their own stereotypes and thinking? Why should I be asked to leave a bar because the waiter does not believe I deserve to be there (something which has actually happened to me?). Why should parents have to cry over children brutally murdered? Why should kids not be entitled to a quality education because they have darker skin? It’s ludicrous and it gets to the point where enough is enough, really.
Economically, racism has enriched much of the western world. The west would not be what it is today without racially-based exploitation. But – I often wonder how much richer the world would be if people were just allowed to fulfil their potential and self-actualize without such interference.
Racism is an evil, and an ill. It is a symptom of a very warped way of thinking, and I hope that we can eliminate not only its fruits, but its very roots as time goes on. Education is part of that. We have to start telling the truth in the world about history in its entirety.
We also have to teach people to ask questions and to think critically about things in front of them. To ask the why’s and the hows’, and not to jump to easy conclusions, nor to seek simple answers to complex issues.
Part of the problem is that, as well as having been legally segregated in some places, people self-segregate, and by doing so, don’t get an opportunity to even get to know people from other ethnic groups on any kind of friendly level. You can’t properly get to know groups of people from the news or from mass media – not when the majority of what the western media writes and shows about other countries, ethnicities and groups is mostly negative. People have to get out of their bubbles, but in a way that’s genuine and comes from a place of humanity. Don’t come to my church in Harlem and gawk at me. Talk to me, on a one-to-one level, as a person.
For people of colour, we have to do what we can. I believe in inspiring one another, and providing positive images, positive role models and stories for collective worth and esteem, and to show what we can and have done. We have done a LOT that we simply don’t get credit for.
We also should forge ahead without waiting for validation or acceptance from those who might not be interested in giving it to us. That’s one of the reason why I started @motherlandsmasterpiece – There is SO much good stuff being done and created by black people all over the world, but where do we go for that kind of news and information?
At the same time, I don’t believe in being ‘colour blind’ per se. My skin IS dark brown. And it’s gorgeous 🙂 I am very proud of my ethnic culture (Nigerian/Yoruba), my racial culture (“black”, “black British”), and I don’t want people not to recognize those things about me nor to pretend that they don’t matter. I just am not interested in negative stereotypes / discrimination/prejudices about those things because there’s just so much more to it than that.
I believe that we are all created with potential, and my fundamental desire for all humans is that we get to enjoy and fulfil our potential without unnecessary restrictions or constraints. Racism is a man-made constraint against the fullness of humanity – and for that reason, it must GO! Aluta continua! 👊🏾
Every time Donald Trump makes a comment about a non-white country, or a non-white person, it becomes increasingly obvious that his America-First agenda is a zero-sum game whose aim is to elevate all things white while denigrating anything and anybody else.
In Trump’s world, everything related to whiteness and white people (neo-Nazis included) is right and good, while all things non-white – whether that’s kneeling NFL players, black sports broadcasters, immigrant children, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Muslims and so on – are bad, unworthy, inferior, and deserving of his scorn. Trump’s brand of racism is of the profoundly unsophisticated kind; non-white people can be put into clear categories: sons of bitches, ‘lazy’ and ‘ungrateful’, ‘rapists’, ‘the worst’.
Unfortunately, it’s now El Salvador, Haiti and Africa’s turn to be the target of Trump’s poisonous prejudices. On Thursday it was revealed that, in a meeting to discuss a bi-partisan immigration deal with lawmakers, Trump had asked “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” (He then expressed a desire to see people from Norway come to the US, the implication being that Norweigans are inherently better people than the people of color who – by virtue of residing in those other apparently undesirable places – are, therefore, undeserving of support or protection.)
What is deeply troubling (beyond the fact that the slur isn’t actually true), however, is the extent to which Trump not only essentializes and other-izes whole groups of people, but the way in which he continues to use his racist ideas and ideologies to guide his positions on policy. The chaotic Travel Ban, thankfully taken to pieces by the justice system, has already shown us the influence of Trump’s xenophobia on his decision-making. However, despite failing to bring the travel ban into effect in the way he had wanted, Trump still tries to do more of the same.
We have to ask why Trump really wants to disrupt the lives of Haitiain men, women and children living under Temporary Protected Status since the devastating earthquake in 2010 which, to add insult to injury, occurred on January 12th exactly 8 years ago tomorrow? What will he, and his supporters, really gain from attempting to send 200,000 El Salvadorean immigrants back to a country which they may not have been back to for 15 years? Why attack Africa and Africans? Politically and practically, these moves make no sense: Haiti is a neighbour to the US, and has been an ally for many, many years. America needs Africa, with its growing middle class and huge youth demographics. And, it does the US no favours to cause instability in El Salvador. It makes no real sense to create diplomatic tensions or political rifts with any of these nations, nor to hurt them in ways which might lead to political and economic failure which might then, in turn, come back to affect the US in adverse ways.
But Donald Trump is racist and this is, from my point of view, all about the continued culture – dare I say, race – war which Trump is trying to wage in America. He desperately wants to stoke tensions, to open up divisions, to increase xenophobia and racism using the divide-and-conquer strategy that has been his game plan from the beginning.
Trump believes that places like Haiti, El Salvador and Africa – that is, places full of non-white people – are no good. And, he wants his followers to believe (if they don’t already) the same thing. Judging by what he has said and done so far during his time in office, he wants us all to believe that non-white people are, on the whole, no good. He seeks to associate the word immigration with bad non-white people, even though a large proportion of immigrants to America are – and have been – white. Trump himself, comes from an immigrant family. But that, is the essence of Trumpism, also known as Making America Great Again and putting America First.
It is likely that we will continue to see Trump’s xenophobically-driven policies get struck down by the legislative arm. However, and unfortunately for those of us in our right non-racist minds, we will hear more of his crude rhetoric (whether said in private or in public), because it suits his white nationalist agenda.
Sadly, this president is so inept and incompetent that his only path to maintaining power and control is taking the position that places which he has deemed ‘shitholes’ (and I suppose this would mean that people from those places are, by extension, shitty) are undeserving of American support, no matter their role or position in helping America and no matter what problems such an attitude may cause.
This is further reason why this president’s nefarious agenda must be resisted. There should be no room for this kind of thinking and attitude in America; to see this kind of racism at work in 2018, is a deep, deep shame.
The artist’s portraits of neighbors, icons, and strangers show a keen and democratic attention to detail.
A detail from “Mercedes Arroyo,” 1952DAVID ZWIRNER GALLERY
When, in 1938, Alice Neel decided to relocate from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem with José Negrón, a musician and her then-boyfriend, she was making a bold yet potentially career-destroying move. During the early ’30s, Neel had participated in New York’s first open-air exhibitions, held in Washington Square, which had begun to put the city on the map as a hotbed of abstract art—and had befriended artists like Joseph Solman, who would go on to found The Ten, a prominent group of expressionist painters.
In addition to being part of the decade’s zeitgeist as led by downtown artists, Neel’s own star was ascendant: In 1932, the Philadelphia Inquirer had written that her paintings “reveal[ed] the possession of interpretive gifts out of the ordinary,” while at the American Artists’ Congress exhibition in 1936, her work was singled out for recognition in the New York World Telegram. Why then, her peers might have wondered, would an artist who was just beginning to garner critical attention shun the New York art world’s epicenter for a poorer neighborhood that few knew or cared about?
The answer to this question might lie in the retrospective Alice Neel, Uptown, a fascinating exploration of the painter’s symbiotic relationship with Harlem. The show, on view at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, is curated by the New Yorker critic Hilton Als, who describes Neel’s subjects as “artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color”—all of whom she painted over the course of the nearly 50 years she lived and worked uptown, before her death in 1984. The potent yet personable paintings, mostly done in oil, are enduring proof of Neel’s curious, compassionate eye, on and off the canvas. “Whether I’m painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity,” she once said. “Even if I’m not working, I’m still analyzing people.”
The burbling, bohemian vibe of Greenwich Village didn’t hold much interest to the Pennsylvania-born Neel (she thought it too “honky-tonk”), and her portraits were at odds with the abstract expressionism that would come to dominate the New York art scene. As the art historian Jeremy Lewison has written, “Neel’s devotion to the realist depiction of the human form in an era of increasing abstraction … confirmed her position as an outsider.” Her indifference to the artistic trends of the time was partly a result of having spenta year (1926-1927) living in Cuba, with her first husband Carlos Enríquez, also a painter. According to Phoebe Hoban, in her bookAlice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, it was while immersed in Havana’s art scene that Neel came to believe that art could be political, revolutionary, and sociological, documenting and capturing everyday people in times of social crisis and cultural change.
Virginia governor Bob McDonnell wants to celebrate confederate history – but it is inextricably linked to slavery
There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.
As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.
Governor McDonnell said that he’d reinstated Confederate History Month (previously ignored by his two predecessors) in order to “understand the sacrifices of the confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the civil war.” That may look noble on paper. However, what he failed to include or recognise – until President Obama pointed it out in a TV interview – was that the civil war and confederate history are inextricably linked, in a way that it is impossible to sugar coat, to slavery.
In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.
States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?
A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.
While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.
It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.
Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.
One year in office for a black president was never going to be long enough to cool America’s heated battles over race
The past year has provided the world with the opportunity to see whether or not the potent symbolism of Barack Obama’s inauguration has translated into reality. This is particularly so today, a federal holiday in the US to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, on the subject of race relations – a topic so fundamental to America’s history and one unmistakably tied to its present day social, economic and political reality.
According to a recent Pew poll, America’s race relations are in better shape now than they were two years ago. African-Americans are assessing race relations and prospects for the future more positively than at any time in the past 25 years.
Yet others might argue the contrary, that a number of high profile race-related incidents over the past year suggest a lack of progress. Henry Louis Gates, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, tea-party goers, the New York Post and, most recently, Senator Harry Reid are just some of those who have been involved in controversial events which have led to questions, criticism and scrutiny about exactly how much racial progress has been made under Obama’s presidency.
A more revealing place to look, certainly more so than polls or media firestorms, is at the fact and figures of minority life in America. There is the 16% African-American unemployment rate, which is expected to soon reach a 25-year high. There is the fact that while the president works on passing a healthcare reform bill, people of colour continue to die at disproportionate rates from diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There is a US education system which continues to fail minority children. While the picture is not all doom and gloom it is clear that the issues which most negatively affect the quality of life of a large number of minority citizens still persist in spite of an African-American president.
Yet, expectations that President Obama could single-handedly overturn centuries-old individual prejudices and systematic racial issues – particularly in the space of one year – was merely setting him up for failure. There have been enough successful and powerful Americans of colour to suggest that one person’s acheivement will not radically alter the day-to-day lives of the rest. Nor should it be left to one person to bear that responsibility. In fact, by adopting the notion that casting a vote is enough and that all subsequent efforts are to be made by the president and his administration, people are absolved of their own responsibility for creating a society that works well for everyone.
The most important question now, going forward, is how to get to the root of the matter – so that the situations which lead to higher than average unemployment rates for minorities, even when there is no recession, and disparities in healthcare, education, economics and elsewhere no longer exist. It is here that an opportunity for something new lies.
Since President Obama’s inauguration, there have been repeated calls for more talk about race as the key to solving issues and improving race relations. However, if there’s anything the past year has taught us, it is that Americans already talk a great deal about that topic. If talking about race were the only, or best, way to end race-related issues, they would surely have ended a long time ago.
Racism – indeed, any –ism – and race-related issues arise from a fundamental, and often subconscious, belief that people are unequal. When Martin Luther King gave his famous “Dream” speech in 1963, he proclaimed his desire to see an America which would hold “self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
Unfortunately having an African-American president does not mean that all people believe that “all men are created equal.” Indeed, some of the views that have been expressed since the inauguration suggest that there are those who clearly still see the president himself as not being equal.
If President Obama is to really fulfil Dr King’s dream, and to make a real difference in his presidency when it comes to America’s race relations, it will be by having the notion that “all men are created equal” come to life as an integral part of American beliefs, such that all America’s systems – educational, economic and the rest – continue to change to reflect that. Until that happens, it is likely that we will see a continuation of disparities that will limit not only minorities but America as a whole.