President Trump usually insults people of color in one of two ways, and I’m never sure which I prefer. He either ignores us, or he scapegoats us.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Trump and his speechwriters managed to do both successfully. The president omitted any mention of many issues directly or disproportionately affecting black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities. He never mentioned the thousands left for dead in Puerto Rico, for instance, nor the continuing water calamities in Flint and other cities dealing with environmental health disparities. He didn’t touch violence at the hands of police officers, even though we just saw a cop sentenced to prison for murdering Laquan McDonald in Chicago. But since xenophobia is central to his appeal, Trump went in on Mexican and Central American migrants as expected, fear-mongering about caravans, MS-13 and coyotes.
There is a third option for degrading people of color. Sometimes, as Trump demonstrated during a key moment in Tuesday’s address, he doesn’t disregard us or make us the patsy for America’s ills. He simply finds a way to make us useful.
A few minutes after he complained about Congress investigating his various misdeeds, the president introduced Alice Johnson to a larger American audience. It is not impossible to acknowledge a good deed that Trump has done; the trouble comes with identifying one. Johnson’s release from prison last June qualifies. Kim Kardashian’s celebrity played a key role in convincing Trump to commute Johnson’s life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent drug crime, but so what. As I wrote at the time, it was intoxicating to see the unadulterated joy of the great-grandmother as she was released into the arms of her family. One could imagine the scene infecting even the darkest of hearts.
And yet, not since Johnson has Trump used his clemency powers to commute or pardon an incarcerated person in her situation, someone who was given an exorbitant sentence under drug laws that have discriminatory impact, if not intent. Though many conservatives have been seeking a win on this front, Trump was an unlikely messenger. His speeches are littered with tough-on-crime rhetoric about failed, racist policies like “stop-and-frisk.” Private prison conglomerates donated heavily to a pro-Trump PAC and his inauguration — and even gave business to one of his resorts. The signing of the FIRST STEP Act — short for the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act — seems like a positive, but there is a lot of work left to be done. It’s an acronym for a reason.
Yet Trump celebrated it on Tuesday as though he has not only achieved the ultimate in federal criminal justice reform, but that he has inspired states to follow his lead. “This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community,” Trump said, conveniently leaving out that only a fraction of the approximately 181.000 people currently incarcerated in federal facilities would be eligible for the credits needed to earn early release. “The FIRST STEP Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption.”
He must think we are new here.
That passage, along with Trump’s long record of calling for draconian measures of criminal justice, is why it was even more sickening to see the president point to Matthew Charles in the gallery and say, “Welcome home.” Trump also called him “the very first person to be released from prison under the FIRST STEP Act.” Whether or not that is actually true, Charles could have walked out long before January 3rd — he could have not gone back in at all, in fact, had Trump noticed the national attention paid to his case. (It wasn’t coming from a Kardashian, so Charles was out of luck.)
Trump made the 51-year-old Nashville man the face of his bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation Tuesday night, but he left the man in prison to rot for six months while the act was debated. Charles, who had been sentenced to 35 years for selling crack, was placed back in prison last summer after the U.S. Attorney’s office determined that he’d been released incorrectly under the Fair Sentencing Act. The Obama-era law reduced the Reagan-era crack-sentencing disparity and granted clemency to 231 incarcerated people, including Charles — but he shouldn’t have qualified because the law only applied to first-time offenders. That loophole, though, didn’t excuse the injustice of yanking him back into prison after two years of freedom during which Charles had built a peaceful and constructive life.
Ironically, Trump saved the Johnson and Charles reveals for a moment when the FIRST STEP Act is being exposed as a faulty piece of legislation. Hours before the State of the Union, Mother Jones reported that “advocacy groups that championed the bill are less than pleased with how it’s been implemented so far, claiming that thousands of well-behaved inmates who were supposed to quickly earn a reprieve have been forced to stay in prison longer than lawmakers intended.” Why is that the case? Remember those credits that the incarcerated need for early release? There appears to be a legislative error in the bill that is causing judges to hold up candidates, but it isn’t clear whether lawmakers are willing to fix it.
That’s why it was so easy to fall for what we saw on Tuesday night. Two wonderful stories of black people released from prison early, seemingly impossible under this racist presidency, were exploited during a State of the Union otherwise filled with braggadocio, jingoistic nationalism, empty threats about investigations and the typical Trumpian cultural resentment, all cloaked in a billow of bad speechwriting. Talk of criminal justice represented perhaps the most cynical part of the evening, a moment when a president who has consciously betrayed this country’s ideals and interests exploited our hopes that one day, the system might actually work for us. As it has been with the stories of African-Americans when they are told by men like Trump, more context is required.