On Friday 3 July, with nearly 130,000 Americans dead from Covid-19, Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Representatives of the Sioux – an alliance of Native American peoples – had implored him to cancel the speech. Not only did it pose a public health risk, they argued, but it would also be insulting for a president to speak ahead of US Independence Day on land that had once been stolen from Native Americans.
Accompanied by his wife, Melania, Trump made the speech anyway, in which he claimed that the US was “witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children”.
Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities… They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history and culture, to be taken from them.
Trump’s implication was that protesters who have pulled down statues of Confederate leaders across the US – a trend that was sparked by the death of George Floyd in May – are not true Americans.
Trump lambasted those liberals whom he believes want Americans to hate their own history. It was a familiar theme that he returned to on 4 July during a speech in Washington, DC. “No matter our race, colour, religion, or creed, we are one America, and we put America first. We will not allow anyone to divide our citizens by race or background. We will not allow them to foment hate, discord and distrust.” Trump added: “In every age, there have always been those who seek to lie about the past in order to gain power in the present.”
The president’s two speeches were an obvious attempt to rally his base around white identity politics. They also aimed to distract the public from his administration’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused mass death and forced the European Union to impose travel restrictions on US citizens.
Trump pretends that the virus will disappear on its own, and has encouraged businesses to reopen without mass testing and tracing in place. He has also lauded those governors in Texas and Florida who have “reopened” their states but are now grappling with spikes in the numbers of infections. According to one former White House official, Trump’s administration is hoping that Americans will simply grow numb to the numbers of sick and dead, and learn to live with it.
But if Trump’s goal is to divert attention away from his presidential ineptitude, the politics of race and racism in the US are far from effective distractions. The country’s history of slavery and the ongoing public health crisis are, in fact, tightly intertwined. The US not only represents 4 per cent of the world’s population, it also accounts for 25 per cent of global coronavirus cases. And it is also true that the pandemic has disproportionately affected black and minority ethnic Americans across the country.
According to federal data obtained by the New York Times, black and Latino Americans are three times as likely as their white neighbours to become infected, and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus. The NYT had to sue the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to obtain the data; without it doing so, we would not have the full picture of how this pandemic is disproportionately affecting certain Americans.
One striking fact that emerged from the data concerns Fairfax County in Virginia, which has three times as many white residents as it does Latino; by the end of May, four times as many Latino residents there had tested positive for Covid-19.
Those are not just numbers or data points. They represent human tragedies; tragedies set in motion by American history. How does one speak honestly about the fact that a disproportionate number of black Americans are dying without considering the US’s darker backstory? Indeed, the health crisis cannot be separated from the nation’s history of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction in the late 19th century, the Jim Crow laws that entrenched racial segregation, and other discriminatory practices that persist in the housing and banking sectors to this day.
Trump and his supporters on the hard right refuse to admit their white American heroes, such as Christopher Columbus, Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson, are associated with slavery and racism. Columbus, after setting off for the East Indies and “discovering” America in 1492, forced native people into slavery, and colonisation introduced diseases that killed huge portions of the population. In the mid 19th century, Jefferson Davis fought for the rights of the Southern slave states. The former president Wilson authorised federal segregation. These legacies are, at best, mixed.
The president refuses to deal with a virus that is killing Americans, especially black and Latino Americans, at an alarming rate. These facts are inherently connected to the US’s history of discrimination, linking the country’s ignoble past with its disturbing present.
Trump is resorting to racism in the hope that his fervent supporters will savour it and the media will continue to focus on the so-called culture wars. We must not take the bait; we must instead examine the bait. Racism is not a side-story. Look closely and you’ll see it’s a feature of every chapter in our national narrative. Only in recognising how closely the two go together might we hope to change the ending.
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation