WASHINGTON — Shortly before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day last year, President-elect Donald Trump lashed out at Rep. John Lewis — an attack many expected after the Georgia Democrat said he didn’t think Trump was a “legitimate president.”
But it was the way that Trump chose to criticize the legendary civil rights movement veteran that raised eyebrows: Trump turned to a stereotype to describe Lewis’s largely middle class and majority black district in Atlanta and suburbs as “crime infested” and “falling apart.”
A year later, Trump again has ignited a furor on the eve of the King holiday. According to news reports, Trump questioned why a bipartisan immigration bill would offer U.S. entry to Haitians and people from “shithole countries” in Africa — instead of places such as Norway.
Amid worldwide condemnations of that language, some lawmakers and activists question whether Trump is just tone-deaf on race or simply racist.
Trump repeatedly has denied he harbors any prejudice based on race or religion. He said he hates to even be asked about it, and often says, “I am the least racist person you will ever meet.” As proof, he takes credit for the all-time low unemployment rate among black Americans of 6.8 percent.
Yet Trump’s blunt words often depart from tody’s political norm of cautiously addressing race.
Many Trump supporters also agree with the view of Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), who said Friday that Trump was simply “saying what people are thinking.”
After participating in Trump’s White House ceremony for King Friday, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King’s nephew, said, “I think President Trump is racially ignorant and racially uninformed. But I don’t think he’s a racist in the traditional sense.”
But Trump’s critics point to a history they say shows his views on race.
“Time and time again, Donald Trump has pushed discriminatory policies and spewed racist rhetoric,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), who represents a slice of Nassau County.
Trump’s record goes back to the 1970s, when he and his father settled without admitting guilt two federal lawsuits for bias in housing rentals. Trump later took out a full-page ad urging the death penalty for black youth who were charged, then cleared, of raping a white Central Park jogger.
Trump built his political base in part by challenging President Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate. During his presidential campaign he called Mexicans who illegally cross the border rapists, murderers and drug dealers. And as he ran, he only slowly disavowed white racist supporters.
As president, Trump has assembled the least racially or ethnically diverse cabinet in decades, sought to bar Muslims from entering the country, and said “both sides” were to blame after white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
A year after his clash with Trump, Lewis rejected Renacci’s defense of Trump’s comments on race and immigration as all right because he’s only saying what many people are thinking.
“It is not OK. It is not right,” said Lewis, who then listed the different racial and ethnic groups living in America. “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we’ll perish as fools.”