Over the past week, President Trump repeatedly weaponized the office of the presidency to attack four sitting congresswomen — all of whom are women of color — with violent and exceedingly undemocratic rhetoric. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), known as “the Squad,” have responded to Trump’s unrelenting and violent onslaught with assertive civility, never hesitating to defend themselves but refusing to take the bait.
After calling for all four members of the Squad to “go back” to where they came from last weekend (all but Omar, a Somali refugee, were born in America), Trump’s disgraceful attacks reached their nadir Wednesday night in North Carolina when he whipped a crowd of supporters into a hateful frenzy, eventually leading to a collective, 13-second chanting of “Send her back!” This was a direct attack on Omar, one of the first two Muslim American women elected to Congress. It was also an ugly attempt to portray immigrants of color as disposable and deportable for the high crime of expressing dissent with the current administration.
To be clear, telling a black woman to “go back” to Africa is not a dog whistle. It is a blatant instance of anti-black racism rooted in white supremacist claims to this country and a dominant culture that has long engaged in the routine denigration and exploitation of African people. While Trump certainly treats his white critics with gross incivility and rhetorical violence, he never tells them to “go back” to where they came from, undoubtedly due to the racist assertion that whites and whites alone should retain ownership over this land.
Suggesting that women of color — and elected officials — do not belong in their own country is entirely consistent with a worldview that finds it acceptable to encourage the assassination of the African American and Latino boys of Central Park 5, the physical assault of protesters of color exercising their First Amendment rights, and the incarceration of political enemies, like when Trump led a similar chant for Hillary Clinton with “Lock her up.” Trump’s nightmarish vision of America has always been grounded in a politics of crude violence and unapologetic hatred.
But instead of stooping to the president’s level after footage of the “Send her back” chants spread on social media last week, Omar simply tweeted a stanza from Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”: “You may shoot me with your words / You may cut me with your eyes / You may kill me with your hatefulness / But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Ocasio-Cortez also took the high road after Trump’s pointed attack on her colleague, refusing to address him by name but telling a crowd in Maryland on Thursday morning, “It has taken us 240 years to have this unique composite in the Congress, in this moment, and we will not go back.” At a press conference earlier in the week, the Squad stood before the media and maintained their resolve, calmly denouncing Trump’s dangerous rhetoric while presenting a composed and professional contrast to the president’s infantile bullying.
The emotional labor of rising above childish, immoral, and degrading attacks is routinely imposed on women of color, lest they risk further distraction from their message, which is continually dismissed by opponents eager to paint these women as “aggressive” or “uncivil.” Like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), whom Trump has called “unhinged,” and other women of color who maintain their civility in the face of hostility, members of the Squad are subject to double standards that enable men (especially white men) to openly express anger, frustration, and aggression in public and private spheres while depriving women (especially women of color) from the right to legitimately express the full range of human emotions.
To wit, Trump routinely engages in public fits of rage, encourages physical violence against critics, and turns reality on its head by smearing his targets as “angry” and dangerous. Meanwhile, conservative and far-right media, not to mention Trump himself, falsely portray the Squad as hateful and threatening. Such rampant misrepresentation of reality and psychological manipulation has a name: gaslighting.
As I’ve argued in my book How to Be Less Stupid About Race, white supremacist racism validates expressions of rage and violence on the part of whites, especially white men, while depicting racial “others” as menacing threats. White men (themselves the product of immigration and colonization) are traditionally allowed to engage in virulent critique of the United States, encourage violent rebellion, and even launch a civil war — without being told, as a matter of course, to “love it or leave it.”
In this way, the dynamics of white supremacy frame people of color as always already illegitimate citizens, insufficiently patriotic and unworthy of civic engagement. We saw this on display when Trump praised white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” and again last week when he described the “go back” chanters as “people that love our country.”
As advocates for human rights and progressive change, the Squad members join a long line of people of color, civil rights leaders, and white allies who have been subject to vicious smears, death threats, and acts of intimidation designed to silence their voices and maintain the white male supremacist status quo. The intertwined forces of racism and sexism have historically socialized Americans to disregard the critical insights of women of color. From Ida B. Wells to Ella Baker, black women in particular have had to struggle against incivility, disrespect, and grotesque forms of violence. Today, when women of color speak up to oppose oppression and injustice, they are still undermined with pathologizing stereotypes like the “angry black woman” trope.
For her part, Omar remains unbowed and undeterred. “We are Americans as much as everyone else,” she said in a later response to Trump’s vile attacks. “This is our country and we are where we belong. And I told people on my election night, in the great state of Minnesota — we don’t just welcome refugees, we send them to represent us in Washington.”
Crystal Marie Fleming, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology and associate faculty in the departments of Africana Studies and women’s studies, gender and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University. She is the author of two books, including How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide and Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Find her on Twitter @alwaystheself.