Minorities hear division in Trump call for unity

2018-02-01 08:32
US President Donald Trump talks to journalists during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Michael Probst, AP, file)

US President Donald Trump talks to journalists during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Michael Probst, AP, file)

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Washington - US President Donald Trump's call for American unity in his first State of the Union address struck an "us-versus-them" tone for many minorities, raising questions as to what extent Americans are put off by a leader who continually draws criticism as bigoted and xenophobic.

For many people of colour, Trump's address before Congress on Tuesday night hardly reflected a shift in his ideology or his bruising style of governance.

To them, the president simply softened what he's been saying all along, particularly when it comes to immigration, and sought to add a veneer of tolerance by using the stories of people of colour to illustrate his points.

READ: Trump calls for 'unity, new American moment' in national address

"After more than a year of toxic policies and attacks on marginalised communities, the time for hoping Trump might change is long over," said Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson.

"Behaving like an adult for one speech doesn't change those facts."

Rhetorical throwback

In taking credit for a drop in black unemployment, Trump showcased a black welder's journey from unemployment to a meaningful career.

At one point, he reiterated his disgust for NFL players' national anthem protests against systemic racism by praising a 12-year-old white boy's act of patriotism.

And he conflated immigration with urban gun violence by highlighting two Long Island families who were victimised by gang members who were in the country illegally.

The result was a rhetorical throwback to mean-spirited race baiting of the past, said Brookings Institute research fellow Andre Perry.

"You replace 'immigrant' with 'black person', and you're talking 1950s rhetoric," Perry said.

"If you're a person of colour, it wasn't a dog whistle - it was a direct attack. It wasn't that long ago that blacks and women were not full citizens, but we were members of society denied rights under the law."

While some praised Trump for staying on message and striking a more presidential tone, others pointed out that his tone contradicted his actions.

"President Trump can pause his Twitter habits long enough to deliver a prepared speech to a national TV audience, but isn't doing anything real to bring us together or improve the lives of everyday Americans," Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said in a statement.

Representatives John Lewis of Georgia, Maxine Waters of California and Al Green of Texas - all Democrats who have criticised Trump - decided to skip the speech entirely.

"I'm part of those who decided that we would protest outside as a matter of principle to say to the president: 'We disapprove of what you're doing,'" Green said.

Others wore black to show their displeasure, and several wore sashes or ties made of African Kente cloth, a nod to the president's reference to African nations as "shithole countries".

Some wore buttons bearing the name of Recy Taylor, a black Alabama woman gang raped by white men during the Jim Crow era; she died in late December at age 97.

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