Barack Obama and Donald Trump are, in moral terms, the exact opposite of one another. This is exemplified by the way the two men have spoken about race when offering their most personal, heartfelt, and in-depth comments on the matter.
For Trump, those comments came this past week in reaction to the events that led to the terrorist murder of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. This isn’t referring to the prepared statement in which he solemnly condemned white supremacists—two days after he decided not to read it and instead equated violent white racists with the heroes who stood up to them. This refers instead to the series of remarks where Trump went off his prepared script and told the American people what he really thinks.
In response to those remarks, Andrew Anglin, the editor of the major neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, exulted that Trump “uses our talking points … This man is doing absolutely everything in his power to back us up and we need to have his back.” Trump’s expression of his true feelings also prompted white supremacist Richard Spencer to triumphantly declare that he was “proud of” Trump, and brought forth this tweet from a one-time Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (and, by the way, a convicted felon):
But enough about hate. Now let’s talk about its opposite: love. Let’s look at how a real president has talked about race in America.
President Obama was still a senator when he made his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008. He was also a candidate for president who needed to more fully explain to the country his understanding of racism and race relations in our past and present. I have written before about these remarks, along with other occasions where Obama did something similar, but in light of Trump’s disgraceful reaction to Charlottesville, it is important to highlight just how differently the two men approach this most explosive and sensitive topic.
Obama’s speech was a response to the views expressed by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama condemned those views, explaining: ”the profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made.” However, Obama went on to discuss why some in the black community spoke that way, noting: “the anger is real; it is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
Obama explained that the roots of black resentment flow from the oppression African Americans have faced. He did so in order to get whites to understand and maybe even empathize with blacks. Obama then turned around and acknowledged the roots of white resentment:
A similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
[snip] Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
[snip] And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.
It’s nine years later, and we’re still stuck here. First, what’s clear is that Trump is exactly the kind of politician Obama was talking about. He began his campaign for the White House with a speech that slandered Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, and hyped fears about crime in the “inner cities” that he would combat with a return to “law and order.” But let’s stick to contrasting Obama in Philadelphia to Trump after Charlottesville.
In the first paragraph above, Obama showed real empathy for those “anxious” whites, and by example encouraged other Americans to do the same. Furthermore, by doing so he got at least some of those anxious whites to keep listening, to be willing to hear his point that racial provocateurs used white anxiety to divide Americans from one another. Doing so also gave Obama the opportunity to get another message across to white Americans, the most vital one of the speech, and one that they would have been much less likely to absorb had he not first demonstrated that he understood their perspective:
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds, by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
Now let’s directly juxtapose what these two presidents have done. When Obama acknowledged white resentment, he did so in order to defuse and counter it, to reduce racial hatred overall, and to move our country in a more positive direction toward solving the racial inequalities and injustices that continue to plague America. Trump, on the other hand, sought to feed and exacerbate white resentment. He amplified it, parroted its rhetoric, and made clear that he shared it.
In Philadelphia, Barack Obama spread love and truth. After Charlottesville, Donald Trump spread hate and lies. It’s as simple as that.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).