BALTIMORE - More than four decades ago, the Nobel-prize-winning literary icon Toni Morrison made a keen observation about how racists bait black folks into a constant, draining effort to defend our humanity:
"The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn't shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing."
The current "one more thing" is President Donald Trump's attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; the majority-black city of Baltimore; and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that Maryland's 7th Congressional District is a "very dangerous & filthy place," a "rat and rodent infested mess," "Worst in the USA." And for good measure, he added, "No human being would want to live there." On Monday, he continued his tirade by calling Sharpton a "con man" who "Hates Whites & Cops!" Trump's tweets came just a couple of weeks after telling four progressive congresswomen, all American citizens of color, to "go back" to their "broken and crime infested" countries.
This latest invective is not new. It's part of Trump's pattern of logging onto Twitter and playing "the Dozens" with black and brown folks as a core part of his political strategy to entertain and excite his base. His followers love it because he is giving them what some of them appear to have been yearning for since the Civil Rights movement began - white superiority on steroids.
Trump is America's constant shiny object that offends, disgusts, frightens and distracts from the long-term insidious impact of his presidency. With every new racist tweet, there's a predictable outrage and even tears, clap-backs from the left, hours of TV coverage and pages of ink countering Trump's mendacity. And in turn, his base is entertained, emboldened and gradually being conditioned to dehumanize black and brown folks.
And sure enough, the outrage followed this time, too. Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young (D) issued a statement on Twitter about Trump's remarks: "It's completely unacceptable for the political leader of our country to denigrate a vibrant American City like Baltimore, and to viciously attack U.S. Representative Elijah E. Cummings a patriot and a hero. Mr. Trump, you are a disappointment to the people of Baltimore, our country, and to the world." CNN's Victor Blackwell choked up on national television while defending his hometown. Residents of Baltimore started a Twitter hashtag called #WeAreBaltimore, where they shared personal photos and stories and expressed their love for Charm City.
The Baltimore Sun ran a scathing editorial describing Trump as "the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women's private parts, the serial bankrupted of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are 'good people' among murderous neo-Nazis." On Monday, the president of Johns Hopkins University, along with other city leaders, co-authored an open letter in the Sun, in which they rejected "the recent unfair and ungenerous characterizations of our great city and its region."
But as heartening as it is to witness celebrities, local and national leaders and everyday people stand up for this city, there's no real point in defending Baltimore, except maybe to gin up a fleeting burst of civic pride. Are we that insecure about our humanity that we care what this president thinks?
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The fact is, Trump isn't interested in the truth about the conditions in Baltimore, or in fixing them, or in the diverse lives of the very real human beings who live in this city. Trump won't suddenly drop his attacks on neighborhoods where black people live if we show him why he's wrong, any more than he'll suddenly stop telling people of color whose ancestors weren't born here that they should go back somewhere they haven't lived for generations if people explain why that's racist. He's only interested in insulting whoever criticizes him - in attempting to gaslight them by suggesting that it's just their own insecurity that drives them to find fault in Trump.
When black and brown folks call out Trump's racism, he characterizes them as ungrateful, unpatriotic or accuses them of hating white people or America. Those false accusations are just "another thing," as Morrison phrased it, that puts us on the defensive. Trump wants "the Squad," Cummings, Sharpton and others to grovel and prove they love America, prove they love white people and the police. Or at least, he wants them to be talking about themselves, not about the problems they were initially trying to highlight - which takes them away from doing the more meaningful work of using their skills, talents and leadership to dismantle structural racism.
We've been doing this for too long.
One of the dangers of racism is that it can make black and brown folks act as if all they need to prove racists wrong and defend their humanity, or educate white folks about what racism really looks like - as if that will lead to systemic change. It is an emotional trap and a devious ruse of willful ignorance. An oppressive system does not always require malice: It requires routine behavior, tunnel vision and cognitive dissonance. And it makes people of color get sucked into the futile exercise of trying to prove our worth and gain acceptance in a rigged system built on the lie that white people are better than the rest of us.
That's exhausting work. And it's ultimately pointless.
It's worse than that: It's often counterproductive. The defensive response to Trump serves as a rationale for conservatives to rally behind him in his ugly attacks on people of color. When the "woke" left tries to educate the right about how wrong Trump is, the right takes it as typical smug, arrogant hubris, and Trump's base gets even more fired up.
We have to stop playing that game.
Call out Trump's language for what it is - but then move on immediately to matters of business. Communities of color need to protect themselves and keep their eyes on the prize. And white folks of conscience ought to fight racism wherever they find it - which would be a lot more effective if they fight it when they find it in their neighbors and family members than it is when they put heartfelt condemnations of Trump on social media. Even if it might not feel as good.