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Opinions & Observations: How Trump helped wake white Americans to institutionalized racism

June 23, 2020 Stuart Miller
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In 2014, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice all died violent deaths at the hands of police, fueling the Black Lives Matter movement and sparking protests, riots and calls for change. But the list of Blacks, especially young Black men, murdered by the police only grew: Walter Scott, Freddy Gray, Jamar Clark, Laquan McDonald and on and on. It was only this spring that the fire next time arrived in full, when police brutally and unjustly killed Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd.

Six years ago, Black Lives Matter was seen by most whites as a radical movement outside the mainstream. This time feels different — racially mixed and largely peaceful protests around the nation and the world feel like they’re actually having an impact.

Police caught on video have been arrested, regulations protecting the police are being repealed, polls reflect raised consciousness and shifting public opinions among whites as serious conversations about taking away money and responsibilities from police departments are underway in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles and beyond.

Black Lives Matter has been embraced by much of white America, both on the streets and in the halls of power. Some of this change is because the Black Lives Matter movement has spent years building and organizing; some of it is because the video of Derek Chauvin’s cold-blooded behavior looks more ruthless than the Eric Garner (or even the Rodney King) footage; and some of it is because law enforcement has frequently responded to nonviolent and lawful protesters with arrogance and with barbaric violence.

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But there’s one other factor that has been overlooked: Donald Trump deserves a perverse kind of credit for waking up white America to the devastating power of institutionalized racism and the need for systemic change. Trump has long been the most incompetent, self-serving and dishonest president (a minority of) voters has ever elected. But he is also immoral and inhumane — not just a bully and a racist but a white supremacist and a fascist. And that has made all the difference.

In 2014, it was possible for white citizens to say, “Well, that was terrible, but we can leave the push for change to those in charge.” This is not because Barack Obama was African-American but because he was honest, empathetic and competent, the sort of president you’d trust not to burn the country to the ground if you stopped watching the news for a day or two. Of course, that change never happened because of the entrenched racism (investigations have revealed that many police officers are openly pro-Confederate or white supremacist), the power of police unions and the cowardice of too many white politicians to lead beyond their constituents’ comfort zone.

But Trump’s support of white supremacists at Charlottesville, his locking of children in cages, his constant belittling of minorities and immigrants (and the media), and his utter mishandling of the coronavirus, revealed time and again his lack of care for anyone suffering anywhere. Finally, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Americans realized this man not only could not be trusted to lead the way toward justice, he, along with henchmen like Attorney General William Barr, was a major obstacle. His reprehensible language — “dominate” the protesters with “real strength, with real power” and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — was ugly enough, but his unpatriotic clearing of Lafayette Square for his ill-advised and pathetic photo op was just the finishing touch.

But the silver lining — the horrifying behavior by law enforcement and Trump pushed more white Americans toward welcoming progressive changes — still exists in a large cloud, one that could unleash major damage come November. With Trump trailing badly in polls, it’s more likely he and fellow Republicans will stoop more readily to voter suppression and other illegal tactics. But there’s also a danger if Joe Biden wins and the Democrats take back the Senate. After all, the lesson from 2014 was that having another honest, empathetic and (hopefully) competent leader doesn’t guarantee anything. So it’ll be important to keep any celebrations short-lived and be ready to return to the streets to make sure that change is finally going to come.

Stuart Miller has written about civil rights, race, police militarization and politics for the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Newsweek, the Daily News and other publications. He is also the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports” and co-author of “The Other Islands of New York City.”

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