Following reports that the leader of the free world called the Caribbean and African nations from which many black immigrants hail “shithole countries” — or “shithouse countries,” depending on whose report you believe — multiple Trump surrogates sought to defend the president.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Tuesday, while testifying under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, that the president used “tough language” during a conversation on immigration policy in an Oval Office meeting last week. But Nielsen said she did not hear Trump describe some African countries and Haiti as “shithole countries,” as has been reported.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) found that impossible to believe. He preceded to express his frustration with why Nielsen — and Republican lawmakers Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) — seemed unable to recall what the president said in an Oval Office meeting.
“Now, I’ve been in the Oval Office many times and when the commander in chief speaks, I listened,” Booker said at the hearing. “I don’t have amnesia on conversations I had in the Oval Office going back months and months.”
Booker also shared some of his recent conversations with black Americans regarding the comments that the president and his allies deny. He said that the offensive characterization of the countries sending black immigrants to the U.S. was foremost on their minds:
Why is this so important? Why is this so disturbing for me? Why am I frankly, seething with anger? We have this incredible nation where we have been taught that it does not matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter your color, your race, your religion, it’s about the content of your character. It’s about your values and your ideals, and yet we have language that from Richard J. Durbin to Lindsey O. Graham, they seem to have a much better recollection of what went on. You’re under oath. You and others in that room that suddenly cannot remember.
It was Martin Luther King that said there’s ‘nothing in this world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’ And so here we are in the United States of America, and we have a history that is beautiful and grand and also ugly — where from this nation to others we know what happens when people sit by and are bystanders and say nothing. When Oval Office rhetoric sounds like social engineering, we know from human history the dangers of that.
The commander in chief in an Oval Office meeting referring to people from African countries and Haitians with the most vile and vulgar language. That language festers when ignorance and bigotry is aligned with power — it’s a dangerous force in our country. Your silence and amnesia is complicity.
Booker's frustration with Trump's words — and Republicans' defense of him — reflects much of what many black Americans working in politics, media or any other space have felt over the past year when it comes to having to respond to issues on race in the Trump era.
It is a regular sight on cable news to see black commentators passionately making a case for their humanity when discussing the latest comment from the president's statements on white supremacists defending Confederate memorials in Charlottesville, or NFL players protesting racism, or black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries.
They often appear heated and exasperated, frustrated and annoyed or simply disgusted and hurt because more than 50 years after the peak of the civil rights movement, black Americans find themselves having to make the case that some comments, ideas and even policy proposals targeting black people are a direct attack on their humanity.
Many of these people, including Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), the only black female Republican in Congress, have called Trump's comments racist. Some, including civil rights icon John Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Georgia, have gone so far as calling the president himself a racist.
And for a party that already has a long track record of not winning black support, there are real ramifications for that. Michael Gerson served in the George H.W. Bush administration. He wrote in The Washington Post that the implications of Trump being “a racist” are “horrible, but unavoidable.”
For starters, it means the president is blind to the contributions of African migrants to our country. It means that the president has undermined U.S. foreign policy across a strategic continent, and in the process, alienating people disproportionately prone to like the United States and respect its global role. It means that many Americans of color understandably view Trump as the president of white America, sharpening a legacy of distrust that will not quickly fade. Conversely, it means bigots also view Trump as the president of white America, providing energy and legitimacy to some of the worst people in the country.
A majority — 56 percent — of Americans hold negative views on race relations according to a Pew report, and 6 in 10 Americans say Trump's election has led to worse race relations in the United States. And the proportion of African Americans who think race relations are getting worse — 51 percent — is 10 points higher than the proportion of whites who feel the same thing — 41 percent.
For a president whose already-low approval rating with black Americans has dropped since he entered the White House, the details of Trump's comments are almost irrelevant, because even before last week's Oval Office meeting, Trump has made few remarks that have given black Americans assurance that his vision of a great America includes them.