I imagine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is rolling over in his grave.
The Thursday going into the long weekend in which we celebrate his birthday as a nation will be seen as a day in which the Trump administration intentionally disgraced MLK’s legacy.
By now, we all have heard what the president said in reference to non-white immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” the president stated in a bipartisan meeting of lawmakers urgently seeking a legislative fix for immigrants at risk of deportation. Instead, he suggested the United States should encourage more immigration from “white” nations like Norway. Emphasizing Haiti in particular, he continued: “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
The outrage that followed is warranted, but it’s important for us to stay sober and not be distracted. We’ve known for decades Donald Trump harbors explicitly racist views. But that’s not enough, alone, to be outraged. We must be vigilant in watching what he does, not just what he says. His words wouldn’t matter if they were just his racist opinion; the issue is the policies and rules that shape people’s lives, especially people of color, that are the outcomes of his words. The reasons to be outraged are two-fold: his continued use of “strategic racism” to mobilize the racial resentment of his white voter base, and second, how his own racist sentiments are mobilized to change rules and policies that target and harm the most vulnerable, especially people of color and poor people.
The Trump administration’s actions on the Thursday before Dr. King’s birthday were a “twofer” on racist policy actions around immigration and the social safety net. His racist statements about immigrants from “shithole countries” was in the context of rejecting a bipartisan compromise to protect Dreamers, undoing the earlier racial harm the president did by rescinding DACA.
But earlier in the day, his administration also changed the rules around Medicaid, the program that provides low-income people and those with disabilities with much-needed access to health care. Relying on age-old racist and sexist tropes about “lazy” people who don’t want to work, especially people of color and women of color, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced rule changes allowing states to implement “work requirements” to access the program. We’ve seen this before. The same stigmatizing tropes were mobilized in public discourse around “welfare reform” in 1996 to undermine the program.
Let’s not get sucked solely into the Trump vortex. Remember, he was surrounded by racist, right-wing GOP members of Congress at the immigration meeting where his comments were leaked. Their silence is quite loud. And it’s been the long-term dream of Paul Ryan and his ilk to roll back our social safety net. This combination of racist attitudes, strategic racism to win elections, and then racially exclusionary policy-making is the five-decade conservative movement and Republican Party strategy. It’s bigger than Trump. He is just the current and most dangerous manifestation of it.
So it was not lost on me the irony of the president reportedly recording a video message in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. Trump is enacting what has been the conservative dream for over half a century: rolling back all of the gains around racial, gender, and economic justice ushered in by the movements of the 1960s, particularly the Black Freedom movement.
In the storytelling around the policy triumphs of the civil-rights movement, we often herald the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
But the under-appreciated victories of the civil-rights gains of the ’60s also include two groundbreaking policies we often disassociate from the movement. And Trump targeted both of these on the exact same day.
One was the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended decades-long exclusionary immigration policies and opened up our country to a more racially equitable policy. This act repealed the national-origins quotas of the 1920s that favored immigrants from Northern and Western European countries, and literally changed the face of America. Additionally, the policy change restructured the immigration system to recognize and value family migration and reunification. Trump and the conservative movement are seeking to reverse these gains through their 21st-century policies of ethnic cleansing with sweeping attacks on immigrants and specific attacks on the family-migration system.
The other was the creation of Medicaid and Medicare in 1965 as part of the Great Society and the mobilization of movement energy including the elderly, black Americans, and poor and working-class people of all races. These two programs, as amendments to the Social Security Act, were seen in part by President Lyndon B. Johnson as a “second New Deal” to provide economic citizenship and security to all Americans, and especially the most vulnerable.
These two acts were passed by a president who also harbored racist attitudes in his complicated life but whose actions—with social-movement pressure, to be sure—changed the rules of our country to advance racial and economic justice. But with movement pressure that moved both his conscience and the political winds, LBJ was forced to change the racial rules of our country, making it more inclusive and racially equitable.
Chaos or Community? Where Do We Go From Here? was the title of Dr. King’s last book and meditation. What would he call us to do in this moment, in this time? Disrupt. Shut it down. And prevent the normalization of hate, harm, and injustice that those in power, Trump and the entire Republican Party, are imposing on us. Let us all truly honor Dr. King’s legacy this 50th anniversary of his death by taking to the streets and to the voting booths to advance his moral vision of a true multiracial, economically just democracy.