But he is still plowing ahead with a rally in Tulsa, the wrong city for a “Make America Great Again” event in this incendiary moment for our country. Tulsa was the site of one of the most vicious acts of racial violence in U.S. history. In 1921, an angry white mob attacked homes and businesses in a thriving community known as “Black Wall Street,” killing some 300 people and leaving thousands homeless. In another time, and perhaps with a different president, a trip to Tulsa could be an occasion for absolution or remembrance, a chance to talk courageously about healing America’s gaping racial wound.
But for this administration, the decision to hold a rally in that city constitutes an act of diabolical irony. A man who rode to the White House on a hot gust of racial grievance will be visiting a place where white resentment exploded into two days of epic terror, wiping one of history’s most prosperous black communities off the map.
All these years later, they are still trying to find where the bodies of black victims were buried in Tulsa, still trying to calculate the loss of property and income, still trying to determine who set the fires and flew the planes that dropped burning balls of turpentine onto black-owned buildings, still trying to piece together the full history because there was a concerted effort to erase that, too, from news archives and history books.
You need to earn the right to speak on that soil. You need to step into that space with humility and grace, to honor those who were killed and to show respect for a city that has tried, finally, to confront those days of terror by examining their lingering impact.
All of this calls to mind presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s August 1980 defense of states’ rights at the Neshoba County Fair, just miles from Philadelphia, Miss., where civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered in June 1964. Reagan was trying to woo Southern voters who wondered whether he would support an agenda that preserved their privilege when integration and affirmative action were creating unwelcome cultural shifts. They needed to know that the actor and former governor from freewheeling California was their kind of guy.
This time, the voters who allegedly want to make America great again already know Trump is their guy. He doesn’t need to send up a dog whistle to win their approval. But he does crave their roar of affirmation. Why else hold a rally in the midst of a pandemic?
Trump’s office has reportedly been crafting a speech on race. That’s a complicated exercise for a president whose default is to divide and demean.
Giving a speech about race is always challenging for presidents, and even more so if it falls in a time of tumult and street protest. But it also provides an opening to reveal courage and vulnerability — and a chance to wade through hard truths: Abraham Lincoln lamenting “blood drawn from the lash,” Lyndon B. Johnson acknowledging that “emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact,” and Barack Obama saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
If this president wants to visit Tulsa on the day following Juneteenth, let’s follow that city’s lead and make sure everyone in America knows about the Tulsa massacre and Juneteenth history.
This would also be a very fine pulse point to talk about the racial bitterness toward black financial success that led white people to burn a prosperous Oklahoma community to the ground. White violence against black aspiration occurred elsewhere: Rosewood, Fla., in 1923; Springfield, Ill., in 1908; and Elaine, Ark., in 1919. It happened after both world wars to returning black servicemen, whose military rank and training conflicted with America’s subordinate station for black men.
Even today, it still shapes our lives and politics. I am talking about the discomfort some feel when black and brown people are perceived to have risen “above their station.” The birtherism movement that challenged the fact of Obama’s citizenship was fueled by those who had difficulty accepting a black family in the White House — a backlash that elevated the person who lives there today. This is not to say that racial resentment percolates in everyone who voted for Trump. We know that is not true. But we also know that a number of studies have shown it was a factor for a large percentage of voters. Trump’s appeal was not just about economic anxiety.
We are witnessing a stunning moment of atonement, when there is a broader hunger for racial justice among white people and a recognition that policing in America is, in too many ways, broken. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is suddenly embraced by many of the same folks who just a few months ago insisted that “All Lives Matter” was a better frame.
That’s a welcome change. But let’s make sure that we accept the tragic message from Tulsa: Black success matters, too.