Since Trump’s stunning victory in 2016, polls have consistently revealed the astonishing fact that most Americans believe that their president is a racist. The results of a GenForward poll conducted almost a year into Trump’s presidency, when one would have expected an improvement in this dismaying perception, also found that 63 percent of millennials, the country’s future, believe he is a racist. How did we get to such a low point as a nation, especially after President Obama’s visionary and empathetic leadership? Most importantly, how do we extricate ourselves, repair the enormous damage Trump’s divisive campaign, and presidency, have done to race relations and begin to heal?
A signal symptom of this divide, and its dangers, occurred on August 13, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a torchlight parade by members of neo-Nazi and KKK groups, in an eerie scene reminiscent of the early days of Nazi Germany, chanted, “Blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “These streets are ours.” The following day, a white supremacist rammed a Dodge Challenger into a crowd protesting the white nationalists’ rally, killing Heather Heyer, an activist described by friends as a sweet soul who often stood up against injustice. After Trump’s stunning victory, white supremacist groups held a celebratory meeting to outline their agenda in the very shadow of the White House, where Nazi-like salutes were flaunted. White supremacists see in Trump a president who tacitly supports their cause, especially when he blamed both sides for the Charlottesville riot, vilified Hispanics as murderers and rapists, and demonized Muslims and Islam for crimes of a few. They also see White House Chief of Staff John Kelly as advocating white supremacy when he said that compromise could have averted the Civil war—in other words, the North should have allowed the South, which threatened to break up the union by declaring war in order to perpetuate slavery, to make some improvements of that evil institution by, perhaps, giving slaves time off on weekends or more rations, for good behavior.
Trump is President, that’s a fact—and barring his impeachment and removal—he will remain in office till 2020. It’s also a fact that race relations are in tatters. The question then—and in many ways it’s an existential one for America—is how can a nation with a history of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow, a nation which has become so divided and balkanized that blacks and whites might as well be inhabitants of different planets instead of fellow citizens, heal under a president who is adored by white supremacists and reviled by millions of Americans for waging one of the most blatantly racist campaigns ever?
The task for racial healing couldn’t be more daunting—and urgent. Following charges that Trump’s electoral success had been fueled by unadulterated racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny, and by Trump’s appeals to the fears and insecurities of voters, thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across America. Some burned Trump’s image in effigy. Others compared him to Hitler, while many called his election a fraud (Trump handily defeated Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by three million) and denounced him with slogans such as “He’s not my president” and “Love trumps hate.” Additionally, several Trump supporters were beaten by protesters.
Among Trump’s supporters, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke rejoiced. “This is the greatest night of my life,” Duke crowed, despite having just lost a bid to become one of Louisiana’s representatives in the US Senate. “Make no mistake, our people have played a huge role in electing Trump.”
I couldn’t help wondering what Duke meant by “our people.”
Did these people include those who, after Trump’s election, ignited the violence in Charlottesville which led to Heather Heyer’s death; launched a wave of terror that desecrated Jewish cemeteries; made bomb threats against synagogues, Jewish schools, day care centers, and other Jewish institutions; threatened Hispanics; attacked Muslims, Indians, and Sikhs; and carried out a rash of antiblack racist acts in cities and communities across America? At a high school in Minnesota the following messages were scrawled on bathroom walls, mirrors, and doors: “Go back to Africa,” “Whites Only,” and “Black lives don’t matter.” In Wellsville, New York, a giant swastika on a park wall read “Make America White Again.” In the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington, Deep Rai, a Sikh, was working on his car in his driveway when a man approached him and told him to “go back to your own country.” At several Texas universities flyers were distributed anonymously that equated the promotion of diversity and multiculturalism with “white genocide” and hailed Trump as the savior of the white race. At Gwinnett County High School in Georgia, several buildings and sidewalks along with the school’s stadium were defaced with graffiti filled with racist language, swastikas, and mentions of the KKK and Donald Trump.
To me, the most disturbing reaction to Trump’s victory was when a group of middle school students in Michigan were caught on tape chanting “build that wall” in the class cafeteria in the presence of their Hispanic classmates. The image was disturbing because it showed me how the next generation of haters is being made, the way it was done in apartheid South Africa, and in Nazi Germany, by dehumanizing those who were different and desensitizing the young to their pain and suffering. During his victory speech Trump tried to allay the real fears millions of Americans have that his presidency will transform the United States into some sort of Fourth Reich, as was done so insidiously in Germany, which Hitler promised to make great again after he came to power. “It is time for us to come together as one united people,” Trump said. This is easier said than done as shown by the fact that Trump has yet to acknowledge the harm his campaign has done to race relations in America, and his abysmal failure as president to provide leadership in the quest for racial healing. The only way Trump’s supporters and his detractors can bridge the gulf of fear, mistrust, and hatred that is tearing America apart and has breathed new life into the deadly forces of white supremacy is to stop stereotyping, labeling, and demonizing each other and to begin acknowledging, affirming, and respecting each other’s humanity, even when we fiercely disagree politically.
President Lincoln warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Lincoln said this in 1858, before the bitter and bloody civil war fought to abolish an institution that persecuted and dehumanized an entire people because of the color of their skin. What united blacks and whites in the battle against slavery—as existential a threat to America back then as racism is today—was a language inherent in the country’s egalitarian creed. This language is embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. successfully used this language as well during the civil rights struggle to defeat Jim Crow.
That language, which Americans who care about the nation’s future must speak with unflinching courage in the battle against the forces of hatred unleashed by the political civil war raging today, says that we are all created equal and that we are all endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the language of Ubuntu, and there is a lot it can teach us if we understand and embrace the values that shaped it.
To be fair, Trump didn’t create the gulf that has sundered the American family. He simply exposed it in all its terrifying and appalling hideousness. It was already there, lurking as part of the nation’s dark underbelly, when I first arrived in America in 1978. By exposing this gulf, Trump has made it impossible for us to deny any longer the obvious, namely that all of us—without exception—have been infected by the poison of hate, and that together we must find an antidote before it’s too late. It serves no good to claim that one side has a monopoly on hate and the other is immune from it, or to argue over esoteric definitions of racism while America burns and all hands are needed to put out the fire that threatens to engulf us all.
No one is beyond blame.
I vividly recall how many Americans before September 11 demonized George W. Bush. Many denounced him as a racist and an illegitimate president who “stole” the 2000 election from Al Gore. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks united Americans against an external foe, Bush was viewed as a leader who comforted a grieving nation as it searched for healing and answers to explain such inhumanity. Lately, Bush has also been praised for denouncing white supremacy. I also remember being aghast during the 2008 presidential election when many Americans, among them Donald Trump, were adamant that Barack Obama was born in Kenya despite the authenticity of his Hawaiian birth certificate, and that his Muslim name was incontrovertible proof that he was some sort of Manchurian candidate whose nefarious mission was to transform America the Beautiful into an Islamic theocracy governed by Sharia law. There were even some during the 2012 midterm elections who waved placards depicting Obama as a witch doctor while denouncing the Affordable Care Act, which they insisted on calling Obamacare, and predicted that his reelection would lead to the systematic extermination of the white race under the guise of multiculturalism. This was alleged despite the fact that the president’s mother, Ann Durham, was white and born in America’s heartland and that Barack Obama himself had been raised by his white grandparents.
Of course, none of these dire predictions came true. But what did happen was that Americans, because of the inability to speak the unifying language of our common humanity, squandered the opportunity to use Obama’s presidency, with its powerful symbolism—he was the son of a black father and a white mother, after all—to finally bring about racial healing. To the contrary, during Obama’s tenure the country became even more divided. Hatred was considered by many as American as apple pie and was gorged on with gusto. The president and his family were routinely compared to apes and even called the N-word. Therefore, the foundation was erected for the tumultuous 2016 presidential election and its petrifying aftermath.
Now the hydra of hatred has been set free. Not only is it running amok across America, it has also spawned mass murderers like Dylann Roof, who was inspired by his admiration of white supremacy during the apartheid era in South Africa to try to ignite a race war by murdering nine black parishioners gathered for Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on the evening of June 17, 2015. The only thing that can slay this hydra is for Americans to finally learn to speak the language that prevented such a race war in South Africa— the language of Ubuntu.
South Africans of all races and political beliefs were challenged to speak this unifying language, the indispensable key to racial healing, by the courageous and inspiring leadership of 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu. During negotiations to abolish apartheid and implement black majority rule, Tutu implored South Africans of all races and political beliefs to feel and understand one another’s pain, to learn about the wrenching past but to eschew living in it, to overcome stereotypes, half-truths, and mistaken beliefs about one another, and above all, to give one another the benefit of the doubt rather than to assume the worst.
Tutu challenged South Africans to recognize and affirm one another’s common humanity—the key premise and lesson of Ubuntu—even when they vehemently disagreed with each other. This is something that Dr. King also did during the civil rights struggle when he described segregationists as “brothers and sisters” during a sermon called “Loving Your Enemies” at the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. This courageous approach—it is much easier to urge the oppressed to hate their enemies and seek revenge instead of healing—is why Dr. King ultimately succeeded in uniting blacks and whites in the struggle to save America’s soul and future by abolishing Jim Crow, apartheid’s twin brother.
The example of these extraordinary leaders — Bishop Tutu, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, and many others — helped me identify the obstacles to racial healing and the principles needed to overcome them.
It is my hope and prayer that President Trump, impossible as it may now seem given his divisive words and actions concerning race, will embrace and champion the inclusive and humanizing principles of Ubuntu in the same way that Mandela embraced and championed them. It was nothing short of miraculous that Mandela did so—he had every reason to be filled with bitterness and hate toward white people given what he, his family, and fellow blacks had suffered under white supremacy. Indeed, Mandela was urged by many blacks not to talk to or negotiate with his former Afrikaner jailers and persecutors and to demonize and denounce all whites as unrepentant racists who had to be conquered during a race war. After all, Mandela was told, hadn’t whites created apartheid, an evil system that wreaked untold suffering and pain on blacks? Hadn’t the whites robbed him of the prime of his life by imprisoning him for twenty-seven years on Robben Island, the Bastille of South Africa, for fighting for the rights and freedoms Americans cannot imagine life without?
Mandela steadfastly resisted such calls. He was not naive. He clearly knew that in order to save South Africa he had to be a leader for all South Africans, not just for black people, and that all sides had to compromise, something as rare as a hen’s teeth among politicians in Washington. Mandela also knew that compromise was possible only if all factions embraced Ubuntu. He therefore invoked Ubuntu’s tenets frequently, especially during moments of national crisis, even when he was vilified by militant blacks and mistrusted by whites.
One such moment came in 1993, when South Africa was plunged into chaos and internecine bloodshed following the assassination of Chris Hani, a leader who was immensely popular with militant blacks, by a white supremacist Polish immigrant. In courageously speaking the language of Ubuntu during a TV address to the nation, Mandela succeeded in preventing a race war and paving the way for the birth of what Bishop Tutu called “the Rainbow Nation.” As president, Mandela used the same language to spur different political factions to endorse the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose goal was to hold hearings on crimes committed by all sides during the apartheid era, with the hope of bringing about racial healing and reconciliation. Versions of the TRC, despite its imperfections, have been enacted by countries around the world, including Chile, Rwanda, and Canada.
In 1995 President Bill Clinton, inspired by South Africa’s TRC, signed Executive Order 13050 launching the One America Initiative, whose mission was to “help educate Americans about the facts surrounding issues of race, to promote a dialogue in every community of the land to confront and work through these issues, to recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help breach racial divides, and to find, develop and recommend how to implement concrete solutions to our problems—solutions that will involve all of us in government, business, communities, and as individual citizens.” The laudable goals of the One America Initiative remain, however, elusive.
One way President Trump can begin to repair the damage done by his divisive campaign and the early days of his presidency is to build on the foundation established by the One America Initiative. This is truly the best way to make America great again. Trump’s leadership on race is urgently needed at this time because white supremacists have hailed his presidency as the opening salvo in their battle to make America white again. The best antidote against white supremacy and its anti-American agenda would be for President Trump to study the South African experience and learn the lessons of Ubuntu and Mandela’s leadership in times of national crisis. His doing this would not only allay the fears millions of Americans have that his administration is hostile to their interests—it would also enable him to become the leader America desperately needs to free all of us from the prison of racial hatred so that we can finally begin to heal.
There are those who believe that to expect this of Trump is akin to believing in the Tooth Fairy. There are times when I share this pessimism but, for the sake of America’s future, one must never entirely lose hope. After all, St. Paul, one of Christianity’s greatest apostles, was once Saul of Tarsus, a ruthless persecutor of the early Christians. Miracles do happen.
If President Trump appeals to our better angels instead of speaking to the lowest in us, he can remind all of us that, despite the trauma of the most divisive and hate-filled presidential election in modern history and despite our differences of race, color, religion, creed, sexual orientation, and political beliefs, we are all—black, white, Jew, Latino, Muslim, gay, and straight—members of one indivisible United States of America. President Trump’s millions of supporters cannot be wished away or banished to a remote planet in outer space. They too are Americans. Therefore, the only way for the country to unite and heal is for all of us—President Trump, his supporters, and their opponents—to remember that, despite our differences of race, color, religion, politics, and sexual orientation, we are all Americans and share a common humanity. He and we need to remember most importantly that we all share Ubuntu, a common humanity, and that we are all members of the only race that ultimately matters in the annals of history—the human race.