Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a law professor at Emory University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Trump spoke on Tuesday in Jamestown, Virginia, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of American democracy – the year that Virginia, the first English colony, held its first General Assembly of representatives. But this year marks another anniversary: it marks the 400th year the first enslaved Africans were brought to America – specifically to Jamestown. Trump acknowledged how slavery was a “barbaric trade in human lives … we honor every sacred soul.” But my mother’s grandfather was born enslaved in South Carolina, and the President has not spent his time in office honoring our ancestors. He has spent his time insulting us.
Trump has spent the better part of a week verbally attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings and his majority-black district in Maryland in one of his increasingly regular racist rants. He continues to claim that he is not a racist. But the latest tweetstorm comes on top of several recent racist statements by the President.
He told four members of Congress to go back to their countries. All four are American citizens. All four are women of color. (Not for nothing, but this is their country.) How bad is his racism? His tweets were called racist by mainstream news outlets, who no longer felt comfortable saying “racially charged” or using other inaccurate language. President Trump tweeted in response, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” In a follow-up tweet, he said the four Congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib) were the problem, and that they “hate our Country.”
Not only did Trump laugh in the face of our ancestors at Jamestown, he insulted our intelligence in his remarks when he lauded the history of the “first legislative Assembly down to today, (where) America has been the story of citizens who take ownership of their futures and the control of their destiny. This is what self-rule is all about.”
Enslaved people at Jamestown and elsewhere in America did not have self-rule. The indigenous people who Trump stated in his remarks “aided” the Virginians did not have self-rule. Our legal system, which he also bragged about, took away the property rights of indigenous people, beginning with the creation of a legal fiction called the “doctrine of discovery” that allowed white settlers to take land away from a people who were already here and call it discovery. If I discover your wallet… in your pocket… I cannot keep it by saying I discovered it.
What could the President have done instead? He could have spent his time talking about the legacy of slavery and a Republican response to its continuing legacy. He could have laid out an agenda and pressed the reset button on a summer marked by his racist comments (one, which it’s worth noting, falls one century after “Red Summer,” when the United States was rocked by a cascade of racist violence, which African Americans resisted). He did not do any of these things, most likely because his goal is not to mark a historical occasion with nuance or respect or to tackle thorny problems in our nation – it’s to turn out his racist base as the 2020 presidential race heats up.
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Trump’s speech was interrupted once by an elected state official who shouted: “Mr. President, you cannot send us back. Virginia is our home.” Here’s hoping, come 2020, we get to send Trump back home.