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Trump’s dark National Archives speech was white resentment run amok

Trump’s screed against “critical race theory” is the real cancel culture.

Trump speaks at the National Archives on Thursday.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Thursday used the National Archives Museum as a backdrop to make a case that educating students about racism in American society is a dangerous heresy that needs to stop.

In somber, almost sedated tones, Trump signaled to his white base that he doesn’t think structural racism is to blame for any social inequities. In short, not only is the summer’s national reckoning over police violence and racism unnecessary in his book, it’s also un-American.

“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed,” Trump said. “Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.”

The solution, Trump claimed, is to “restore patriotic education to our schools.” He said he’ll create a new “1776 Commission” to “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding.”

“Our heroes will never be forgotten. Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul,” he added.

What this will end up meaning in practice isn’t clear, and isn’t really important. For Trump, what matters is to signal to racial reactionaries that he’s on their side.

It’s just nonsense to believe that America isn’t racist

The United States of America, of course, was founded with slavery at the core of its socioeconomic system. Conversation about slavery’s foundational role in the US has been reinvigorated by the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which, as J. Brian Charles wrote for Vox, “marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves to Virginia” by seeking “to reframe the country’s thinking about slavery and how intertwined the practice of slavery has been in shaping the nation.” (Trump’s “1776 Commission” is meant to allude to the 1619 Project, which Trump has railed against.)

Even after slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws made Black people second-class citizens in much of the country. Today, Black Americans have to deal with voter suppression efforts aimed at making it difficult to them to vote in areas where their votes threaten Republican control.

This legacy of racism has tangible consequences. Black Americans have lower life expectancies and make less than whites, even adjusted for education. (And adjusting for education is important, because in this area as well Blacks fare worse than whites.)

Black Americans are also far more likely, per capita, to be victims of police violence than White Americans. This disparity in particular became a major topic of public attention this summer as protests erupted following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and more recently the shooting of Jacob Blake.

But instead of even paying lip service to structural racism, Trump has consistently denied that such a thing exists. In a July interview with CBS, for instance, Trump responded to a straightforward question about why he thinks Black people continue to be killed by police by lashing out — at the questioner.

“And so are white people. So are white people,” Trump said. “What a terrible question to ask.”

Even worse, he defended a supporter of his who has been charged with murder for killing two protesters in Wisconsin, while using the killing of a right-wing counter-demonstrator in Portland at the hands of a Black Lives Matter sympathizer to advocate for extrajudicial killings.

Trump’s speech on Thursday was attended by supporters of his who, despite his bizarrely monotone delivery, cheered throughout. But the ABC town hall he did on Wednesday illustrated how little resonance his effort to rewrite history has in other settings.

Host George Stephanopoulos confronted Trump with statistics pointing toward the reality of systemic racism — “Black Americans [are] more than three times [as] likely to be killed by police,” he noted, for example — and asked him what he plans to do (if anything) to rectify the situation.

But instead of engaging with the substance of the question, Trump immediately steered the discussion toward polling.

A voter then asked Trump to explain when America has ever been great for Black people. Again, Trump tried to twist the question into an opportunity to talk about polling.

“Well, I can say this, we have tremendous African American support,” Trump claimed, but polls friendly to him peg his job approval with Black voters at under 25 percent. (About 10 percent of Black voters say they intend to vote for Trump, which in fairness would be higher than the 8 percent Black support he had in 2016.)

But the voter pushed back, noting that Trump “has yet to address and acknowledge that there has been a race problem in America.”

“I hope there’s not a race problem,” Trump replied. And if there was any hope that exchange would prompt Trump to reexamine his priors, his speech on Thursday put them to rest.

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