Trump wants to ignore America's racist history

Why the president is railing against Black intellectuals

Trump at a press conference
(Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Does anybody really think that President Trump understands "critical race theory?" Do you believe he has read or contemplated "The 1619 Project?" Trump isn't exactly known for his intellectual deep dives — or for bothering to read at all for that matter.

Still, the president spent his weekend railing against these notable attempts to understand and address the issue of race in American life. On Friday, his administration announced it was cracking down on racial sensitivity training programs within the Federal government that rely on CRT understandings that racism is embedded in the structures of American life — a view one official called "divisive anti-American propaganda." Trump spent much of the weekend tweeting about the issue.

"This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue," he wrote on Saturday. "Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!"

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On Sunday, Trump aimed his complaints at "The 1619 Project," featured last year in The New York Times Magazine. The series, which posits that much of the country's culture and institutions were shaped by the evils of slavery, has become a popular supplement in American history classes — to the ire of many conservatives.

"Department of Education is looking at this," Trump tweeted, in response to a report the package is being used by California schools. "If so, they will not be funded!"

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times writer who spearheaded "The 1619 Project," responded by pointing out an inescapable irony: Speakers at the Republican National Convention last month railed against a left-of-center "cancel culture" that punishes people for expressing the "wrong" thoughts, and Trump himself has signed an executive order to protect free speech for conservatives at public universities.

"Do those concerns about cancel culture and McCarthyism and censorship only apply to the left," Hannah-Jones asked, "or do they apply to the POTUS threatening to investigate schools for teaching American journalism?"

Hannah-Jones' question is rhetorical, of course. It is unlikely Trump has read or personally tried to understand much about CRT or "The 1619 Project," or possesses the capacity to engage with either meaningfully. But he probably understands one important thing. What both those efforts have in common is an effort to understand and address the experience of being Black in America — where slavery and Jim Crow have been the law of the land for all but a few decades — and to do so from a Black perspective.

That is what Trump is against.

It's important to note that neither CRT nor "The 1619 Project" are beyond fair, legitimate criticism. Some prominent historians have critiqued the latter, for example, and critics of CRT have suggested it unnecessarily and uncharitably tars white people with the sin of racism. Some people would simply prefer a point of view that emphasizes progress and triumphs against racism, instead of letting it define the country to any extent. We don't outlaw ideas in America, however — we debate them.

It is difficult to believe this president is much interested in the nuances of those debates. Black Americans are definite underdogs in the telling of this country's story. So theories and histories that center their perspective get crosswise with the old axiom that "History is written by the winners." Trump, we know, has a rather narrow idea of who constitutes America's winners — and contempt for everybody else as "suckers" and "losers." So it is to be expected that he defines such Black-centric ideas as "un-American," and attempts to put them outside the bounds of debate.

The irony is that the Black intellectuals behind such ideas often do an incredible amount of work to reconcile America's brutal history on race with their own love of country.

"For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve," Hannah-Jones wrote in her lead essay for "The 1619 Project." "Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best."

That kind of hard-won grace should be an example to all of us. Donald Trump wants it banned from the country's classrooms.

His weekend rants are best judged in the context of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that started with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Trump has done precious little to address the sense of grievance expressed by the movement. Instead, he has sided with the police at almost every opportunity, warned "suburban housewives" that they will be unprotected if Joe Biden wins the 2020 presidential election, and criticized NBA players who went on strike to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

In short, the president has spent the summer signaling to America that Black lives actually don't much matter to him. With his new crusade against CRT and "The 1619 Project," Donald Trump is telling voters that he doesn't care for Black ideas, either.

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