Monday, September 25, 2017

How Trump Relinquished His Moral Authority to an ESPN Commentator


An informal show of hands in my History of Black Women class  settled the question. President Donald Trump had just lost his moral authority to speak on issues of racism and white supremacy and transferred them to a young black ESPN commentator named Jemele Hill.  The fact that the President might be wholly unaware of the transfer was immaterial.  The question I had posed to the class was this:  “Whose victimization by white supremacy and racism would make him or her a better judge of its corrosive aura: President Donald Trump or ESPN commentator Jemele Hill?”

While the question might have seemed lopsided to some, that’s how moral authority works. It is not codified in writing, like the U.S. Constitution or our legal codes. It is based, instead on what are perceived to be lasting truths, exercised by those who’ve earned the privilege to be respected in that domain.  What had Jemele Hill done to earn that authority apart from publish a series of tweets in which she had called the President a “white supremacist”  and what had he in turn done to lose it, other than attack ESPN and demand that she apologize?

Ms. Hill had performed a breathtakingly simple act of courage. She had announced a truth that President Trump had for eight years denied, double daring the media and politicians to contradict.     The evidence grew longer, nastier and ever more preponderant with references being made to Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers and a Latino judge as unfit to adjudicate Trump’s legal case and the list continued to grow. Trump was a leading figure in the birther movement, declaring America’s black president a Kenyan imposter. He had demanded to see Obama’s college transcripts, suggesting the president wasn’t smart enough to get into Harvard law school. The New York businessman  also asserted that the President’s acclaimed memoir, Dreams from My Father had been ghost written. When not fixated on Obama, Trump bought an $86,000 ad calling for the execution of black youths for the Central Park rape, a crime they were later found innocent of having committed.

In venues across the nation where black women congregate, conversations turned bitter.  President Trump’s attack had gone too far, re-opening old, ancestral wounds. His tweet had mimicked the voice of a patriarchal master dismissing a black woman ’s experience of racism as a lie, for which she deserved to be smacked down.   After all, the patriarch owned not just her world, but the English language as well.  Words could only mean what he said that they meant. Human behaviors could only be given the interpretations that he imposed on them.

But Jemele Hill had not backed down. She had liberated the English language from the lexical dictatorship that had held it hostage. If President Donald Trump fit even the most narrow textbook definition of a white supremacist, then he was a “white supremacist”.

  America’s over-arching problem is not racism, but cowardice.  A nation that allows its Commander-in-Chief to threaten the livelihood of a young woman for saying in a tweet a moral truth written in the hearts of her community, is a nation that will have unconditionally surrendered its leadership of the free world.

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