We can come out of the Trump era a better America, says professor

Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad is hopeful that a change is coming. He speaks with Michael Enright about the midterm elections and the changing discourse around race and racism in America.
Protesters shout slogans and wave placards against U.S. President Donald Trump last year. Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad says Trump gave 'a bullhorn to a lot of what was being said and significant pockets of this country.' But he sees an ongoing fight for the centre in America these days. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
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Welcome to Part Two of The Swamp, a special series on The Sunday Edition leading up to the U.S. midterm elections. 

Race is back at the centre of American political discourse, due in part to the election of Donald Trump.

He has been reluctant to condemn avowed white supremacists and made comments about racial and ethnic minorities have ranged from subtle dog-whistles to naked xenophobia. 

The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School. He's also the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.

'What we can say is that racism, and institutional racism in particular, had been incredibly salient features of American society,' Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad said. But he's hopeful that things will change. (Submitted by Khalil Gibran Muhammad)

Here is part of their conversation.

How much has President Trump himself changed the discourse about race and racism in America since he announced his candidacy three years ago?

What I think is resonantly different is the degree to which moderates, and particularly white liberals in this country, have had to think more intently about their own lack of commitment to facing the racism in their own families, at the workplace, on the playground.

A lot of people have said that, yes, they have family members and not only who voted for Trump, but who also hold the kind of xenophobic views and notions that the Muslim ban is a good idea and ... that we should keep our white children in schools where low achieving black children are less likely to attend.

Those ideas run the gamut from the far right to the centre and centre left of this country. 

What role do you think [economic anxiety and racism] played in his election?

I'm not sure that people are going to ever decide which came first, the economic anxiety or the racism. It's a similar question to what came first, racism or slavery in some ways.

If you're on the short end of that conversation, it's not an abstraction or an academic exercise — it's existential. So if you're a Mexican-American, three generations in Los Angeles, you have every reason to be less concerned about which came first than the fact that both of them, and particularly the racism, have real world consequences to you and your own.

So as far as I'm concerned we can't really disentangle those two things. 

Earlier this year, Trump was reported to have called Haiti, Africa and El Salvador 'shithole countries.' Muhammad told Enright 'the notion that people will scapegoat racialized others is a very old pattern in American history.' (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

What we can say is that racism, and institutional racism in particular, had been incredibly salient features of American society. If you add on to that spark of economic anxiety, and the tremendous inequality that ... has been growing in this country, the notion that people will scapegoat racialized others is a very old pattern in American history.

So should we expect, desire and aspire to be a different country than we've always been? Yes.- Khalil  Gibran  Muhammad

You have a host like Fox News' Laura Ingram saying "the America we know and love doesn't exist anymore." Do many Americans feel that way?

Far more Americans believe that in the negative sense than should believe it in the positive sense. So should we celebrate a country that is different than it used to be? Absolutely. Because it's only been since roughly the late 1960s that we could even claim to have a country where fascism wasn't alive and well and a good portion of the country. So should we expect, desire and aspire to be a different country than we've always been? Yes.

Why is black protest particularly against the police so unacceptable to so many Americans today? If you go back to the late fifties in Alabama and Tennessee there was a level of acceptability of it that doesn't exist now.

For the past 40 years, much of the country has been taught, in our classrooms and in our national political culture, that the civil rights movement was an absolute and unmitigated success. That now black people for two generations have had every opportunity to achieve their best selves. There had been no systemic barriers blocking that.

I call this "the mantra of personal responsibility" that can be heard, not only in white conservative circles, but in many black churches on any given Sunday. 

[In their minds] people like Colin Kaepernick are defending bad behaviour by black citizens who are being disrespectful to police officers, who are serving and protecting their communities and are the real heroes in America today.

Nike recruited [football player] Colin Kaepernick to start the new ad campaign. Sales have increased. The stock is way up. Does that suggest something to you?

We not only have to acknowledge that, even within the past three months, we are beginning to see movement against Trumpism, not just in support of Nike's [Colin Kaepernick] campaign, but also in the electoral arena.

We see evidence that progressive candidates who are staking ground to to own an anti-racist voice ... and [say] "we actually care about immigrants, we care about Muslims, we care about black people and the vulnerable," win elections.

We do have an obligation, I think, to face our challenges with courage and candour.- Khalil  Gibran  Muhammad

I do think we have to take some stock that there is an increasing fight for the centre in this country.

The exit polling on the election of Donald Trump showed us that he won white people in resounding ways across most categories. I would say that in the 2018 election, as a referendum on Trump, we can expect to see losses in that in that way.

Do you have any hope at all now with Donald Trump as president that the U.S. can come to some kind of understanding?

This country never shied away from calling out the evil or the problems that they saw as being destructive to the quality of life of people.

We do have an obligation, I think, to face our challenges with courage and candour.

Part of what has allowed white nationalism to fester in this country, and white supremacy to continue in this country, has been the unwillingness to be honest about the limits of American democracy, because those limits have not been overcome.

I think we have a chance to come out of the Trump era with more courage and commitment to building, or rebuilding, the civic culture of the United States of America — with, as what James Baldwin once said, a history that was more terrible and more beautiful.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. Tune in to The Sunday Edition on October 7 for Part Three of The Swamp, a special series about the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. You can hear Part One here