Back in 2015 and 2016, many people watched Donald Trump’s election campaign and thought there was no way the same country that elected President Barack Obama — not once, but twice — would elect someone who openly attacked nonwhite members of American society.
Now we know better. Trump garnered support among a majority of white American voters, and while not all of those voters necessarily agreed with his racial rhetoric, it didn’t cause them to stop supporting him either. Numerous studies chalk Trump’s first victory up to racial resentment among whites.
We need to pay close attention to increased White racial resentment because not-so-distant history has shown that when Whites perceive that they are somehow not being treated fairly or that Blacks and other minorities are “taking over,” the consequences can be costly, dangerous and deadly.
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Such resentment led to the 1921 burning of Black Wall Street near Tulsa, Oklahoma, which destroyed a prosperous Black community, and the lynching of countless African-Americans, including the teenaged Emmett Till, whose memorial was recently desecrated by three gun-toting white college students.
A hundred years ago, in 1919, White racial resentment led to the events known as “Red Summer,” when anti-Communist and anti-Black ideology converged in a six-month long orgy of violence against Black people not only in the Southern states but across the country including injuries and deaths in Arizona, Indiana, and Washington, DC.
The sitting president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, reportedly told a friend in March 1919 that “the most likely vessel for” the growth of socialism in America was “the American Negro returning from abroad.” He was referring to African-American veterans who had valiantly fought in World War I despite widespread discrimination from military officers and fellow soldiers.
Apparently many Americans shared President Wilson’s belief that African-Americans were a threat to the American way of life because the firestorm of race riots broke out a few weeks later. By the time he returned from the treaty-signing in Paris in July 1919, the Nation’s Capital was actively being overrun with white veterans who were physically attacking Black civilians in front of the White House and all over the city. Local police and Federal troops did nothing to stop the violence, leaving Black people to defend themselves. Similar violence broke out a few weeks later in Norfolk, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois and continued in other locations until the rioting waned in October 1919.
Red Summer was not a fluke, either. Between 1900 and 1976, more than 20 race riots broke out in the month of July alone, even in Northern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, in midwest cities like St. Louis, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Unlike more recent uprisings in which frustrated Black citizens have set fires and looted stores in reaction to assassinations of important leaders, unjust verdicts or killing of Blacks in police custody, these riots were acts of aggression by Whites against Blacks because of “White racial resentment.”
Fast-forward to our current times, as President Trump’s re-election campaign gets underway. In the past month, he has used his appearances and infamous Twitter account to attack the four Congresswomen of color known as “The Squad,” suggesting that Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar (and her three American-born colleagues) should go back to where she is from and fix that country instead of criticizing America.
Trump used the same line of attack this weekend in a poor attempt to deflect attention from Rep. Elijah Cummings’s criticism of unsanitary conditions at the infamous ICE detention facilities. Rather than address the issue, the president tweeted that Baltimore, the American city Cummings partially represents, is filthy, rat-infested, crime-ridden, and called for an investigation into possible stolen funding (between tweets criticizing the investigation into his campaign).
The president tried to distance himself from his supporters who began chanting “send her back!” He mentioned his meeting with “inner city pastors” as a response to accusations that his tweets about Baltimore are racist. But there is no distancing himself from his string of aggressive anti-immigrant policies which began as soon as he got in office and instituted travel bans and have continued with the packing of asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrant men, women, and children into detention facilities at the border.
Meanwhile, within hours of Trump’s tweets, yet another White male opened fire on a public gathering, this time in Gilroy, California. Hours before, he posted an Instagram comment about mixed-race people and recommended that his followers read a 19th-century book that advocates for white supremacy. This racist ideology has motivated many recent mass shooters in America and around the world.
I’m not suggesting that Trump is responsible for white supremacy. We know it has existed for a very long time; the nine Black churchgoers attending Bible study in Charleston, S.C., were gunned down during Obama’s presidency. I’m not even suggesting that a majority of White Americans — Trump voters or not — support overt acts of racial violence.
I am saying that Trump’s coded rhetoric such as “Make America Great Again” unapologetically taps into the simmering white racial resentment and xenophobia for political gain. It is emboldening individuals to carry out 20th century-style racial violence with modern weaponry that affects Black people, other so-called minority groups, immigrants, and even Whites.
People who identify with this resentment (including Trump voters) are showing up in police departments, schools, hospitals, security agencies like TSA, and in other positions that we depend on to keep us safe, healthy, and well-informed. No border wall is going to keep them out. What are we going to do to keep ourselves safe from them?