Optics matter, appearances are important and all presidents and politicians use them to enhance their message. Ours is a visual culture, after all. We face such a flood of images daily – on TV news, YouTube, our social networks – there is a tendency to remember how things looked before recalling precisely what was said.
But no amount of photo ops at the White House with President Donald Trump and the heads of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, members of the Congressional Black Caucus or people of color listening to Trump babble about Fredrick Douglass to mark Black History Month can hide the fact that the President intends to hurt our communities and enable those around him to do the same.
Trump, a man so thoroughly consumed by appearances and ratings, willingly surrounds himself primarily with white men. Sure, he has appointed women and people of color to cabinet positions, but when it comes to the question of which groups of people his presidency will serve, his messaging couldn’t be clearer. This is the same guy who publicly thanked African-Americans for staying home on Election Day.
What’s astonishing is the stench of white supremacy wafting from the Trump White House. It wasn’t crazy for some Americans to think that, roughly 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the United States was headed toward a better place. In retrospect, though, the belief was naïve. Trumpism is playing the big joker.
This week Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, began his assault on people of color by announcing plans to reverse police reforms and consent decrees in the name of law enforcement. Then there’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s plan to siphon money from the hundreds of thousands of public schools. Trump’s first major decision made good on the racism in his campaign: Steve Bannon appointed chief White House strategist. Bannon, who trafficked in racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant hysteria as executive chairman of Breitbart News, is Trump’s puppeteer.
But what does the Trump administration’s posture toward dialogue with black and Latino leadership really mean long-term? How does that trickle down to state and local politics? Will black and Latino concerns be marginalized nationwide in the Trump era? Fair questions. Clearly, we’re at the start of a reversal of minority political fortunes, and a prolonged assault on working families, the poor and period of racially exclusionary politics.
Trump’s overt racism has a silver lining: women and people of color are running for political office in record numbers, signifying a potential precedent for diverse candidate pools ahead of 2018 elections. A young black man is running for mayor Tallahassee, a Muslim for the governor of Michigan and a black transgender woman for the Minneapolis City Council. Of the 23 candidates running for a seat in California’s 34th Congressional District, half the candidates are women and at least 18 are people of color.
A reawakening of determined minority political purpose could begin to reverse the 2014 study findings by Reflective Democracy Campaign. It found white men comprise 31 percent of the population, but they hold 65 percent of elected offices in the United States. Research also reveals that white men hold eight times as much political power compared to women of color, indicating that more diverse politicians is good not only for the optics of representation, but can have a major impact on the political landscapes for marginalized communities.
That has certainly been the case in New York City, where the only elected official in recent memory comparable to Trump was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who obsessed that there were certain racial and ethnic groups he could not win over –– and he refused to try. He slurred nearly every high-ranking black official in the city, even those of moderate politics. And let’s not forget Giuliani’s 1993 election campaign speech to an ugly mob of off-duty police officers protesting an All-Civilian Complaint Review Board, marked by racially derogatory chants and placards describing Mayor David Dinkins as a “washroom attendant.”
Giuliani’s optics set the tone, damaged race relations and deformed public discourse. He was the antithesis of Dinkins who preceded him, and like Obama, came to office riding the wave of an interracial coalition of inclusiveness and diversity.
In contrast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg swung the pendulum back toward inclusion and calmed the wave of racial ugliness. The Republican was reelected in 2005 with roughly half of New York’s black voters and about 3 in 10 Latinos. Bloomberg’s reelection demonstrated how the Big Apple’s voters no longer cast ballots in monolithic racial blocks.
The election of his successor, Bill de Blasio, who is celebrated as the America’s most progressive mayor, further illustrates what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the arch of history curving toward justice, with voters rewarding inclusion, competence and progressive policies that lend a hand to underserved communities. It seems like a lifetime ago that New Yorkers elected a divisive figured like Giuliani.
The point? People are smart. People pay attention. People look past images to the substance and character of the person, or lack thereof.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.