Erika D. Smith

Donald Trump gets only one chance to prove he’s not racist

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday in the Oval Office.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday in the Oval Office. Abaca Press

Sometimes I forget what turning the other cheek looks like. The empty expression after someone hurls a racial epithet and the victim makes a calculation that it’s smarter to walk away than fight back.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama offered up a powerful reminder.

As a crush of reporters angled for a view of him sitting in the Oval Office next to President-elect Donald Trump, he smiled a tight smile that never quite spread to his eyes – a telltale sign. The two men had just spent nearly 90 minutes talking about the logistics of transferring power.

Ever the professional, Obama looked straight into the cameras and gamely adopted a casual but serious tone. Millions of stupefied Americans, still reeling from Tuesday’s election and the wave of hate speech and bullying that has followed, looked back.

“We want to make sure they feel welcome as they prepare to make this transition,” Obama explained. I kept expecting him to choke. “Most of all, I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

Talk about surreal. Talk about infuriating.

This was Obama, the country’s first black president, welcoming to the White House a man who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Trump is a bigot who spent months snidely questioning Obama’s heritage and stoking racial fears in an attempt to undermine his presidency to the amusement of the alt-right.

Trump is a bully who has made it his mission to erase Obama’s legacy, reversing so many of his policies that it might appear, one day, as if he was a mere footnote to history. As if his black life didn’t matter.

But Obama took one for the team. He turned the other cheek for the good of the republic.

When it was Trump’s turn to speak, he assured a skeptical world that it was a “great honor” to meet with Obama, whom he called “a very good man.” They shook hands, the cameras flashed, Obama cracked a joke and that was it. Only in America.

Over the next four years, many of us will have to decide whether we’re selfless enough to follow Obama’s example. Hillary Clinton, trying to sound upbeat in her concession speech Wednesday, encouraged us to do so. Give Trump a chance, she said. The peaceful transfer of power is what makes America special.

That’s true. But until this election exploded in our faces, blasting us apart along urban and rural lines, there was a big difference between turning the other cheek for the good of the republic and for the good of oneself.

Not anymore. Now politics is personal. That happened the moment Trump started threatening to round up people with a deportation force, appoint anti-abortion justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, ban Muslims from the country, dismiss climate science, and abandon community policing strategies that calm the nerves of Latino and black people.

Trump has backed off some of those comments, but it’s hard to know what to believe from a man who acts and tweets like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in the Bay Area, New York, Chicago and many other cities to chant “not my president” are understandably terrified about losing their hard-fought-for rights. They’re worried they’re going to get harassed or attacked. I’m worried, too.

Already, schools across the country are reporting race-related bullying. At Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, students were scared that immigration was coming to school to deport them. In Woodland, Latino students reported their peers were telling them to “go back to Mexico” and “we’re more American than you.” A video went viral of middle school students in Michigan chanting “build the wall.”

And it’s not just kids. In North Carolina, a note was left on someone’s car. “Can’t wait until your ‘marriage’ is overturned by a real president. Gay families = burn in hell. Trump 2016.”

Near Boston, college students posted videos of two men driving around in a pickup truck with a Trump flag, stopping to spit at black students. The same thing occurred in Indianapolis, where Vice President-elect Mike Pence lives, only they were flying a Confederate flag and shouting the n-word out of the window.

Tell me of someone who can turn the other cheek about any of that. I know I wouldn’t be able to.

This is not to say that all or even most Trump supporters are racist. Not willfully and deliberately anyway. I’ve lived in the Midwest – in the industrial and rural bastions that pushed Trump over the top – long enough to understand it’s more nuanced than that.

What looks like racism is sometimes just a byproduct of living in a small town where nine out of 10 residents are white and struggling in some way, and knowing the nearest cities are filled with a diverse group of people who seem to be doing just fine and yet still get all of the resources.

Most “angry white people” are just scared and lashing out at a rapidly changing world. They’re undereducated and ill-equipped to handle a changing economy – willfully so, in some cases – and deeply resentful of those who’ve seemingly prospered while they’ve suffered.

There’s also the inescapable fact that white people are becoming the minority. By 2050, they’ll be less than 50 percent of the of the U.S. population. It reminds me of a quote I saw online months ago and scrawled on a sticky note. “When you’ve been on top for so long, equality feels like oppression.”

Trump winning the election makes a lot of people feel like they’re on top again – or at least on their way. Many honestly believe he will bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas and cut health care costs. Many others are just caught up in the elation of winning and sticking it to the know-it-all liberals.

That latter group is who I’m scared of. These are the people driving around trying to intimidate black people with Confederate flags and yelling at immigrants to speak English. These are the parents teaching their kids hate and letting them terrorize others at school. These are the racists, egged on by candidate Trump, who will keep this nation divided.

President-elect Trump must disavow them and their behavior, swiftly and emphatically. And then, if he’s smart, he’ll focus on creating jobs and economic opportunity for the voters who supported him, and he’ll realize that doesn’t have to come at the expense of everyone else.

As much as it pains me to say it, Obama did the right thing by turning the other cheek and giving Trump the benefit of the doubt to ensure a peaceful transition of power. But Trump shouldn’t expect most Americans to be so selfless if his administration embarks on a mission to undercut our rights.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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