What Happens to Civil Rights in Trump's America?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Should we show good faith to someone who acted in bad faith?
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
As a candidate, Donald J. Trump didn’t come off as a civil-rights-and-liberties kind of guy. To put it mildly.
He spoke of banning members of an entire religion from the country and mass deportations. He mocked the disabled and endorsed torture. He threatened to sue The New York Times and others for critical reporting. He voiced support for stop-and-frisk policies deemed unconstitutional, as well as for a kind of election-day vigilantism that sounded to many like voter suppression. Throughout the campaign, Trump’s rhetoric sounded in dog whistles.
Having won the election, the president-elect shifted course, calling to “bind the wounds of division,” and a host of Democratic leaders called for a peaceful transition — of just the sort the candidate himself had poo-poohed before Tuesday. Many are wary. “Depending upon the new administration’s fidelity to America’s ideals of liberty and the NAACP’s agenda for justice, we will either be at its side or in its face,” NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said in a press release Wednesday. On Thursday we caught up with Brooks, a lawyer who has been the organization’s president since 2014, to discuss civil rights in Trump’s America. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
What sort of signs are you looking for in the transition?
Every bigoted piece of rhetoric, without exception, is tied to bigoted policy. We have commentary [from Trump] suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists — tied to an immigration policy premised on the banning of an entire global, billion-plus member group. So when you ask what would make us think we could work with this administration — it’s not just the retraction of offensive statements. It’s also the reimagining of our policy. We need to see a substantive policy shift.
If the Trump Administration speaks to the economic anxieties which have largely fueled his victory — putting the country to work with higher-paying jobs, partnering with the private sector to make investments in infrastructure and the future, etc. — that makes sense. It makes sense for a particularly hurting slice of the demographic, those with the skill and will to work but who have been depositioned as a result of the global economy. That makes sense. Double down on that.
On the other hand, when people said they wanted change, I don’t think the majority of Americans wanted change as dictated by the alt-right, the KKK or folks who take their trade policies from the Flat Earth Society. But with the lack of policy granularity, it’s hard for us to figure out.
If you talk about the need for public order, good — but you’ve got to move away from stop-and-frisk, which is both unconstitutional and ineffective, empirically speaking. Right now, his criminal-justice policy is not just standing against the tide of history but also in opposition to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, many governors and police departments across the country. All of them are making the case for data-driven community policing.
All of this is to say that if the president-elect is truly serving his base and the whole of the country, and open to other voices and data — and not ideologically hidebound — maybe you get something done.
Black turnout was lower than in 2012 and 2008. Why?
One thing to note here: Almost without exception, across the demographic board, Secretary Clinton received fewer votes than Barack Obama. It’s not merely that African-American voters failed to show up in sufficient numbers, but that the Obama coalition, in all its diversity, did not show up in 2012 numbers. That speaks not to the failings or failure of a demographic group, but rather to an enthusiasm gap across many groups. Point one.
Point two: Let’s note that President-elect Donald J .Trump was elected likely because of suppressed votes. In the course of his campaign, we’ve seen no fewer than 10 federal cases about voter suppression — from Texas to Alabama. Then we have Ohio’s irrational voter-ID laws, and calls across the country urging citizens to various — shall we call them civic shenanigans? The point being that Mr. Trump won with two thumbs and eight fingers on the scale.
This election, the blame cannot be laid at the feet of millennials and African-Americans, but the collective responsibility has to be laid at the feet of Congress for failing to fix the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court for breaking it in the first place. And we still don’t have the infrastructure in this country to turn out harder-to-reach communities.
How do you see Obama’s legacy, especially in light of Trump’s election?
Had Secretary Clinton been elected, Obama’s legacy would likely be freestanding and enduring. In the context of President-elect Donald J. Trump, the Obama legacy is imperiled and under question. The objective facts are these: He rescued the economy, not just nationally but globally, from economic apocalypse. The unemployment rate is now sub-5 percent. Obamacare, for all its imperfections, has nonetheless resulted in millions of people being covered and has fundamentally elevated the accepted standard for health care. Even in this ugly era of mass incarceration, we had a president who has commuted the sentences of more people than the previous six presidents combined. And intangible: You have a president who is regarded as someone who represents core American values: civility, decency, a sense of fairness. Also: no scandals. We are in an infinitely better place than we were eight years ago. The question for us is whether the succeeding administration will not drag down his legacy.
Do you worry about state surveillance?
In the absence of clear, well-delineated policy positions with respect to law enforcement and its constitutional constraints — and with affirmative statements with respect to supporting unlawful stop-and-frisk — and where we have statements calling for the prosecution of candidates and enemies during the campaign. Some of this Nixonian, Watergate-esque rhetoric makes one rightly apprehensive about state surveillance.