Given the historical context of the film, Lee used his win as an opportunity to highlight the history of racism in the United States and to challenge Americans to change that. He said: “The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate.”
Lee did not tell Americans to vote against Trump. But it’s not surprising that the president took the director’s call for civic engagement as an anti-Trump message. Lee, who has built his career addressing issues related to racism, has directly called out Trump in the past for his racism.
After Trump appeared to sympathize with the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville by calling them “very fine people” even after one of them killed an anti-racism activist, Lee criticized the president while promoting “BlacKkKlansman” at the Cannes Film Festival.
He said: “It’s an ugly, ugly, ugly blemish on the United States of America. Heather should be alive now. It’s a murderous act. It was a defining moment, and [Trump] could have said to the United States and the world that we’re better than that.”
So naturally Trump took Lee’s latest words as a personal insult and in return struck back at the director. He tweeted: “Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President, who has done more for African Americans (Criminal Justice Reform, Lowest Unemployment numbers in History, Tax Cuts,etc.) than almost any other Pres!”
The suggestion that Lee, someone who reads and writes for a living, is struggling with literacy perpetuates a common stereotype among racists that black people are not intelligent. In fact, a frequent insult of Trump’s against black people who criticize his presidency is to dismiss their intelligence.
But Trump’s response was directed at his base, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted. Sure, Trump is “America’s president,” but the use of the phrase “your President” is a reminder that he has only been consistently embraced by a small percentage of the American population despite widespread of disapproval of the American public.
And Trump listing how he believes he has done more for African Americans than almost any other president primarily serves as talking points that his supporters can cling to when forced to entertain the belief that Trump is one of the most racially divisive presidents in recent history.
The president also responded in a way that is common among his supporters: He called Lee racist. There is a belief among some that those who regularly bring up racism, like Lee, are the “real racists.”
To people who believe this, being silent about racism — or at least not calling those on their side out about racism — is how you show how racist you aren’t. That silence in many ways is another manifestation of colorblindness — the idea that some people (often white people) don’t see color and as a result don’t discriminate based on color.
But it also suggests that people on the receiving end of calls coming from people such as Lee are the real victims. According to a Washington Post survey, racism against whites was a real concern among the people who voted for Trump. And as long as Trump and his supporters focus on themselves in conversations about racism, the issues Lee and those like him mention will never move toward being resolved.
All in all, Trump’s response reminded Americans of one thing: The president is not likely to change the words or actions he regularly deploys that have attracted the scorn of Lee, countless African Americans and other people who agree with them. If anything, Trump will enter the 2020 cycle doubling down on the ideas and policies that many people have found discriminatory — and yet so attractive to the Americans who voted for him.