On this day when we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and all that his name and work stands for, and roiling in the recent controversy over whether Donald Trump said this, that or the other thing, there are several things no one can deny.
First, before Trump was president, Obama was. In my memories of the eleven presidents I have been aware of, no president mentioned their immediate predecessor as much as Donald Trump mentions Barak Obama. Mr. Trump can deny all sorts of things, but the fact of the Obama presidency is carved in black granite on the white history of our nation. A family – in so many ways the epitome of the “American Dream” – or perhaps more accurately the “American Myth” – arose out of modest means, has a loving and faithful marriage, honors and loves their children, overtakes a significant primary opponent and a respected election opponent, and becomes president.
And then, one of – if not THE signature achievement of the Obama presidency was the brave attempt at reforming how we do health care in this country – who gets it, how we pay for it, and a baseline of care. Talk about a political “third rail”! Right now health care costs are somewhere between 16 and 20% of GDP. We pay more for health care than other industrial nations and have worse outcomes. Whatever Mr. Trump thinks about the AFA, the waters Mr. Trump’s predecessor waded into have created ripples that will long outlive his own tenure.
You can deny he was born a US citizen; but you cannot deny the African American was a US president – and ironically, no one seems to want to remind us of this more than Donald Trump.
Second, it was recently pointed out in a talk by sociologist Aladin El-Mafalaani that few movements around the world are as diverse as right-wing reactionary groups – from Canada to Australia, from Great Britain to Germany to Turkey to Israel. From the internal qualities that made an Obama presidency possible to the global realities of migrants and refugees, nations are having to deal with the fact – and this is not fake news – that every place in the world is more diverse than ever before – even the protests!
“One world” is not a “united world”. It certainly is not a calm world. It is a world filled with new conflicts. Cultures, like tectonic plates when they collide, push a lot of prejudice to the surface. Sisonke Msimang, South African author and activist, calls the rainbow a “hologram” – a kind of dream-like ideal that no longer serves the “movement”. It doesn’t acknowledge the struggle, what it means to claim one’s color, gender or sexual orientation. “We have to begin to imagine more interesting ways of relating to one another,” she says. More interesting than the rainbow. We have to tell our stories, and oppressors have to be honest about the crimes of prejudice, segregation and privilege if we want to be forgiven. “Victims will not forget,” she says. Conversely, oppressors must not fail to remember.
As surely as resurrection must never be used to deny crucifixion, what often feels like a step backward in our nation’s project of diversity must never be allowed to overshadow the strides we have made toward inclusion and mutual respect.