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. It was not lost on them that 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.”
The remarks focused on “immigrants involved with criminal activity as opposed to the vast majority of people who came to America and have contributed,” said Muzammil Ahmed, board chairman at the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “It creates a false narrative of who immigrants are that was misleading.
“It’s been a long year for minorities. A lot of people from marginalized communities feel like they’ve been under extra scrutiny and pressure. The State of the Union address didn’t do anything to help calm our fears and just indicated we’re going to have more of the same over the next year or two.”
Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, believes Trump is the “most coarse and divisive” commander-in-chief he’s encountered, and the address Tuesday did not alter that perception.
“He does not engender unity and harmony," Anthony said. "He does not inspire people wanting to work together. It’s very difficult to listen to a state of the union when you know that the state of the union is being trashed by the head of the union. Words have a lot of meaning and they cut to the heart of the situation. There is an old African proverb: ‘Even the smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.’
"It’s time for some deeds now rather than the intentionality of continually dividing the country and speaking to one-third of the country.”
While somepraised 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 “s---hole 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.
Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed to this report.
No immigration deal near
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union offer of a “down-the-middle compromise” on immigration did nothing to move Republicans and Democrats closer to a deal Wednesday, as Democrats accused the president of lacing his speech with racially charged remarks and Republicans dug in on their demands.
The reaction to Trump’s high-profile overture suggested both parties were settling into a protracted tug-of-war. The standoff left serious doubt whether the two parties could reach an election-year pact to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation, sharpen border security and take other steps to curb immigration.
“If the deadline is Feb. 8, we’re not going to make it,” No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Wednesday, noting a looming deadline for approving government funding to avoid another shutdown.
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