Trump has normalized our worst racial impulses

Donald Trump: We have to bring back law and order
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Story highlights

  • Peniel Joseph: Race matters shaped a scintillating portion of first presidential debate
  • Clinton countered Trump's racial blind spots by calmly discussing institutional racism, he says

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)Race matters shaped a riveting portion of the first presidential debate Monday night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at Hofstra University. In a lengthy exchange over the spate of videotaped police shootings of black people in America -- and the roots of the birther movement questioning President Barack Obama's citizenship -- the candidates made a series of fascinating statements.

Trump reiterated his support for "law and order," once again characterizing America's inner-cities as forgotten places filled with murder, poverty and miserable blacks who have been abandoned by politicians. But his description of the black community sidestepped the way in which his own political rhetoric has contributed to the nation's growing racial divide. Its promotion of a brand of racial anxiety, fear and anger have turned his campaign into a galvanizing movement for racial intolerance.
In fact, his Janus-faced stance on racial justice has helped normalize the notion of white supremacy in contemporary American politics.
    The first presidential debate in under 2 minutes
    The first presidential debate in under 2 minutes

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    The first presidential debate in under 2 minutes 01:57
    Still, the very fact that moderator Lester Holt confronted both candidates on the state of race relations signals how important this issue has become in 2016, with Americans searching for a way out of a national impasse.
    And so, Trump, the same candidate who has been endorsed by virtually every police union in America for his "law and order" stance, has proclaimed his support for black communities demonized by mass incarceration and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. And he did this again Monday night.
    Trump's use of the word "Chicago" as a racially charged code word was intended to evoke images of urban decline and skyrocketing crime in a nation where violent crime has -- in fact -- been dropping for a quarter-century.
    But the biggest example of Trump's uncanny ability to lie in public has long concerned Obama's citizenship. After spending years as the most visible and famous advocate of the "birther" lie -- that Obama was born outside the United States and thus an illegitimate commander in chief -- Trump abruptly dropped the charge nearly two weeks ago and laid the entire mess at the feet of Clinton, accusing her surrogates of starting the rumor during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries.
    Unbelievably, Monday night, and with hardly a challenge from moderator Holt, Trump once again successfully fashioned rhetorical fictions to distance himself from this racially charged lie he personally helped to manufacture. At one point, Trump presented his role in the birther controversy as something that helped the President prove his citizenship -- thereby demonstrating another bona fide for Trump in his outreach to the black community.
    A short history of Donald Trump's 'birther' claims
    A short history of Donald Trump's 'birther' claims

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    A short history of Donald Trump's 'birther' claims 02:31
    Clinton countered Trump's gaping racial blind spots by calmly discussing institutional racism, the need for community policing and her support for criminal justice reform. She also turned back his apocalyptic description of black communities by discussing the hopes and dreams of ordinary black families, the strength of the black church and aspects of racial progress that Trump's rhetoric conveniently ignores.
    She forcefully attacked the racism behind Trump's birther charges, detailing her personal knowledge of Obama's "hurt and annoyance" at these unfounded charges. She also rightfully noted that the "stop and frisk" measures that Trump openly supports were found to be discriminatory and unconstitutional.
    At one point, Trump touted a club he built in Florida that does not discriminate against "African-Americans, Latinos and Muslims" as both a counter to allegations that his real estate empire systematically discriminated against blacks and proof of his commitment to racial equality.
    Trump made symbolic appeals to racial equality, invoking bizarre circumstances to make his case. He criticized Clinton for calling blacks "super-predators" -- the truth was more complicated: She was describing gangs (interpreted by many as code for young black men) as she pushed for her husband's 1994 crime legislation, and she later apologized.
    Trump, on the other hand, today supports stop and frisk tactics that basically criminalize black bodies through public policy -- and were ruled unconstitutional.
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    But Clinton's valiant efforts to set the record straight by pointing out the yawning gulf between Trump's appeals to racial unity and his actual business practices, as well as his thinly veiled appeals to white nationalism, fell short for much of the night.
    In a perfect world both candidates would have offered substantive policy initiatives to promote the healing of racial wounds, end institutional discrimination and eliminate state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans.
    Unfortunately, voters were left with a surreal spectacle of a discussion on race that never mentioned Black Lives Matter and found a candidate who has inspired white hate groups and questioned the citizenship of the nation's first black President waxing contemplative about the mistreatment of African-Americans.
    Clinton, who received little aid from Holt, could only smile and shrug at the way in which Trump, win or lose, has successfully normalized our worst racial impulses for all the world to see.