On 16th June 2014, I was in Memphis, the home of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King’s martyrdom. The Lorraine Motel where Dr King was assassinated is now the National Civil Rights Museum. My visit was unforgettable and harrowing; my tour ended at the scene of the shooting, with King’s “I Have A Dream” speech played over his favourite gospel song, Mahalia Jackson’s haunting “Precious Lord”.
Then came an even more unforgettable moment. On the taxi back to my motel, a young white driver gives me his two cents on race relations: “You know, behind their big smiles, I know that black people are a cruel and cunning race. It’s just like the Arabs.”
“But, sir, I am an Arab,” I told him. He slams on the brakes and demands that I get out of his car.
“I don’t even want your dirty money,” he tells me. “Sand niggers are not welcome in Memphis.”
I should have known then that exactly a year later, Donald Trump would run for the White House.
From the outset, Trump dubbed Mexicans rapists. “Ban all Muslims,” he cried, breaking the Internet in the process - and then he proposed to erect a wall spanning the entire American-Mexican border.
As Mark Steel puts it, Trump could now promise to “shrink Muslims and keep them in eggcups” and no one would bat an eyelid.
His fellow Republican nominees – helpless – are forced to keep up; desperate to keep the political dynasty alive, Jeb Bush approved of Ronald Reagan’s image of black Americans as “welfare queens”. But not even scaremongering could save his pathetic campaign. Trump has established himself as the anti-immigration, WASP candidate, and no one quite knows what to do.
Trump is an anti-establishmentarian, the ultimate sinner. His fellow – and equally vile – Republican candidates are made to look like saints. And in the politics of pessimism, no one wants a saint. Ted Cruz and Mark Rubio are in dire straits; another dropout is well overdue.
As things stand, the race to the White House is set to be a fierce showdown between Trump and Clinton. The former First Lady will look to win the black, Hispanic and ethnic minority vote. Trump will hand it to her on a silver platter: compared to Trump, she is a warrior of social and racial justice.
But, apart from in comparison to Trump, Hillary Clinton is hardly unproblematic. The black voters who will put their destiny in her hands are the same people she called “super-predators” at the height of racial tensions in 1996. Fast forward to her 2008 Democratic Presidential campaign, and Clinton was eager to paint Obama as an un-American other: “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values,” her memo reads. The implications were clear.
It is no surprise, then, that the Republican National Committee’s official YouTube channel has published The Clintons Hope You Forgot, a damaging video reminding us of her angry campaign in South Carolina eight years ago. Critical of Martin Luther King’s dream, Clinton, in the words of NBC’s Tim Russert, suggested “it took a white man [Lyndon B. Johnson] to get blacks to the mountaintop.”
It is, however, all too easy to forget that Clinton has only recently started to show active support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Donald Trump’s hyperbolic and overtly racist remarks distract from Clinton’s subtler, tactical racial insensitivity. Trump’s 2,000 mile wall does more than keeping the Mexicans away: it shields Clinton, Cruz and Rubio from scrutiny.
And yet the blacks, the Arabs, and Hispanics – the “us’s” as Harvey Milk would put it – will have no other choice. Bernie will no longer Bern. Clinton and Trump will come to blows on November 8th. The political dynasty will fight it out with New York’s most powerful family. And Dr King will turn in his grave.
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