On Friday, Jan. 12, as President Donald J. Trump left an event marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a reporter shouted out: “Mr. President, are you racist?” Asking that question would once have been a shocking breach of decorum. But lately it is a question many Americans are asking themselves. The latest catalyst are reports that President Trump described African countries as “shitholes” during a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators over the terms of a deal to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
The media has run with this controversy. But the real story is not that Mr. Trump made racist comments. Evidence of his racial animus abounds, going back decades. “Shithole countries” is not even the worst thing the president has said.
The real story is that despite the fact that the president is, by many people’s accounts, a racist, those who care about immigration reform still need to work with him. The only way we will protect our families and friends from deportation is by obtaining his signature on a “Dream Act” to preserve DACA provisions. The stakes could not be higher. This is the true horror of the predicament of racism: The oppressed have no option but to learn how to navigate life in a fundamentally racist society. What choice do we have?
The real story is that despite the fact that the president is, by many people’s accounts, a racist, those who care about immigration reform still need to work with him.
As people of color, we learn to navigate institutions and spaces defined by white supremacy. This means political candidates who must take care not to alienate white voters. It means workers who must hold their tongues when their bosses say something insensitive. It means actors who plays stereotypes on screen to pay the bills. It means students for whom overcoming the achievement gap means succeeding in the very academic system that has created the achievement gap in the first place. In short, our lives are full of compromises with racism already. What choice do we have?
Mr. Trump being the final decider of a DACA deal is an extreme version of a common reality for all people of color: The keys to what we need to get ahead, or just plain survive, are held by people who, in many cases, believe we do not belong. Democrats, and the Republicans who understand Dreamers are owed protection, could take a lesson from people of color around the country in how to navigate a political process tainted by racism. The lives of 800,000 Dreamers depend on it.
The more immediate practical tragedy of the “shithole” comment is that it worsens the prospects for a DACA deal. Mr. Trump’s racist comments makes the politics of giving him the concessions he wants in exchange for the Dream Act so much harder for Democrats. For example, by the terms of last week’s bipartisan deal reached by a group of six Republican and Democratic Senators, Mr. Trump could have secured some of his own priorities, including billions in border security funding that he could quite easily argue constituted his “wall,” as well as an end to the diversity lottery visa program. Most Democrats were prepared to give the president these concessions, though few on the left (least of all me) want to see a border wall or eliminate a path of legal migration. These concessions in exchange for a path to citizenship for Dreamers enjoyed bipartisan support and were understood as necessary to obtain Republican votes and Mr. Trump’s signature. Yet his racist outburst and rejection of the bipartisan deal instead led us into a government shutdown.
If a grotesque monument to his xenophobia in the form of a border wall is the price the president demands, then it will be yet another compromise with racism this country has forced on communities of color.
Republican anti-immigration hard-liners with no intention of protecting Dreamers were surely pleased at this turn of events. And Democrats have less reason to offer concessions that now seem part of an all-out war on immigrants, especially those of color. But to secure a deal on DACA, some concessions will be necessary. We do not like this fact, but we have no choice but to deal with it.
The demands of some Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas that Democrats reduce legal immigration must never be considered. Nor should any proposal that would put the parents of Dreamers at risk. But if the Dreamers are hostages, we must not doubt that Mr. Trump and Republicans are willing to shoot them. If a grotesque monument to his xenophobia in the form of a border wall is the price the president demands, then it will be yet another compromise with racism this country has forced on communities of color.
Of course, the best way for Mr. Trump to “prove” he is not a racist would be simply to pass the Dream Act. What better antidote to the devastating optics of civil rights heroes like Rep. John Lewis calling you a racist than embracing a path to citizenship for 800,000 young, largely minority, undocumented immigrants?
The image of this president signing such a bill would be endlessly frustrating. But I would shake his hand and thank him and stand behind him and clap at a signing ceremony if that is what it takes. It would not be the first time that communities of color had to play nice with a racist to get something more important done.