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.