President-elect Donald Trump wasted no time in establishing a hideous double standard of racist privilege in the White House. His appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and his picks of Jeff Sessions for attorney general and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser have been praised without qualification by Klansmen, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other white supremacist groups.
That stands in stark contrast with the quick, off-with-their-heads terminations of controversial African Americans during the Clinton and Obama administrations. While no white appointee for Trump can be too offensive, no black government official could ever survive being seen as, to borrow from Malcolm X, too black, too strong.
There was President Bill Clinton’s abandonment of Lani Guinier in 1993. Nominated for assistant attorney general for civil rights, she was tarred as a “quota queen” for writing that districts with a history of voting discrimination might consider election methods to level the playing field. One remedy was “cumulative voting,” in which voters get as many votes as seats available and can use them all on one candidate or spread them out.
Such methods have been used in local elections and on corporate boards, as the Securities Exchange Commission says, to “strengthen the ability of minority shareholders to elect a director.” But top Senate Republicans insisted that Guinier represented a legal apocalypse. Alan Simpson of Wyoming said Guinier’s writings “suggest a kind of racism in reverse.” Orrin Hatch of Utah said her remedies “would push America down the road of racial balkanization.” Bob Dole of Kansas said Guinier supported “vote-rigging schemes that make quotas look mild.”
President Bill Clinton wilted under the race-baiting and withdrew her nomination. The next year, Clinton dumped African American Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in the face of Republican outrage over her saying the nation should consider early sex education, the study of legalization of drugs, school distribution of contraceptives, and that masturbation could help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
It became no easier two decades later for President Obama to harbor African Americans with views too strong for Republicans. While Trump ascended to the White House in an incendiary stream of racial, religious, and sexist insults and mocked those with ability challenges, Obama himself would not be president without his delicate speech in the 2008 campaign to distance himself from the fiery condemnations of America by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama said, “Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.”
In the first few months of his administration, Van Jones was gone as “green jobs” adviser when it came to light that he once signed a petition questioning whether President Bush let September 11 happen so he could go to war and called Republicans a crude term in a speech. It his haunting to recall that among the loudest critics demanding Jones’s ousting was then-Indiana Representative Mike Pence, and now the vice president-elect. Pence said Jones’s “extremist views and coarse rhetoric have no place in this administration or the public debate.”
When then-Attorney General Eric Holder said America remained a “nation of cowards” on candid discussions on race, indignant conservative rage forced Obama to criticize the remarks. He said, “I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language.”
In 2010, the conservative news site Breitbart (remember that name) breathlessly released a heavily edited video of a mid-level African American Agriculture Department official, Shirley Sherrod, confessing before an NAACP meeting in Georgia that she once hesitated to give aid to Roger and Eloise Spooner, a white farm couple, while working in a prior nonprofit group meant to help black farmers. In the end, she did get the couple help. She told the story to show her personal growth in race relations despite her father being murdered by white men in 1965. In fact, Eloise Spooner told The New York Times, “If we hadn’t have found her, we would have lost everything, I’m afraid.”
But Breitbart ran only the part about her hesitating to give help. The indignant shockwaves from conservative talk shows and news outlets spooked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to fire Sherrod and even the NAACP to agree with the firing. When her full remarks were reported, Vilsack and Obama apologized. Sherrod was offered her job back but turned it down. Last year, she settled a defamation lawsuit out of court with the Breitbart family.
Obama himself spent his eight years in office in a perpetual ballet pirouette around race, knowing the penalties of being too black, too strong. His intended baseline was “I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.” Obama sincerely hoped his overall efforts on the economy, health care, and education on behalf of all Americans would lead to “more fruitful conversations” about race.
He found out how hard it was to talk about race in his first year in office, when he instinctively said a white police officer “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the latter’s own home. National outrage from police unions forced Obama into a virtual apology, with him saying, “I could have calibrated those words differently.”
On many occasions he calibrated eloquently, especially during the murder of black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young white supremacist. Obama repeatedly tried to tell the nation that African Americans aren’t just making up historical concerns about discrimination. In the aftermath of the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood-watch vigilante, Obama famously said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
In his speech at the memorial for the Dallas police officers who were murdered in the wake of police killings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, Obama tried to thread the racial needle by saying, “With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.”
The Trump election, fueled by overheated rhetoric that created enemies of Muslims, Mexicans, Black Lives Matter, and even the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton, is America’s tragic answer to Obama’s attempt to sew the frayed fabric of the nation together. Like a hard frost in Florida, a state Trump flipped from two Obama victories, the “fruitful conversations” he hoped for now droop from the tree in ruin.
Trump has no intention of being the president of all of Americans when he employs Bannon, former head of the same Breitbart that in effect lied about Sherrod to create a black racist, that glorifies the Confederate flag, that mocks lesbian “bridezillas,” and that asks if you would rather your daughter had “feminism or cancer?”
Sessions is just as offensive. His 1986 nomination by President Ronald Reagan to be a federal judge was derailed after lawyers who had worked with him testified that he used the term “boy” to address a black men and said Ku Klux Klan members were “OK” until he learned they smoked marijuana. They said Sessions also labeled the NAACP, the ACLU, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH, and the National Conference of Churches “un-American” or “communist-inspired.”
As a senator, Sessions today supports harsh immigration measures, including a ban on Muslims. He has called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive.” His response to the infamous videotape where Trump boasted about grabbing women’s vaginas was telling the conservative Weekly Standard, “I don’t consider that sexual assault.”
Flynn falls right in line with that, calling Islam a cancer and endorsing the view that a blanket fear of Muslims is rational. The praise for all three is best summed up by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who said that their appointments “are the first steps in taking America back. … Bravo President Trump!”
One can only imagine the furor had Obama come out of the starting gate with appointees spiteful and hateful of white people and an attorney general who had no clue what sexual assault is. Trump feels absolutely no racial or gender burdens the other way. As in bygone times, Trump has begun appointing women and people of color to more peripheral positions, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for ambassador to the United Nations. But Trump has already exposed the fact that white nationalist bigotry is the official policy of his White House.
No appointment is too white, too strong.