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Anti-Racist Historian: Attacks on Rep. Omar Rooted in Belief “America Is for White People”

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On Thursday, President Trump attempted to distance himself from the racist chant of “send her back” about Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar at a Trump campaign rally Wednesday in North Carolina. The chants rang across the rally in response to Trump’s own verbal attack against the congresswoman. He did nothing to intervene. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a resolution condemning Trump’s racist remarks against Congressmembers Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We speak with Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, President Trump attempted to distance himself from the racist chant “Send her back,” about Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, that ran out through his campaign rally Wednesday night in Greenville, North Carolina. In fact, he did nothing to intervene as the chant rang out, pausing a full 13 seconds, in response to his own verbal attack on the congresswoman.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Omar blamed the United States for the crisis in Venezuela. I mean, think of that one. And she looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans, saying that ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country. And obviously and importantly, Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.

CROWD: Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!

AMY GOODMAN: Trump paused for a full 13 seconds for “Send her back” to ring out through the rally.

Trump’s remarks came one day after the House of Representatives voted to condemn his racist tweet telling four progressive congresswomen of color—freshman Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar—to “go back to the crime-infested places from which they came.” Three of the congresswomen were born in the United States. Omar is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Somalia. She has been a citizen longer than first lady Melania Trump. Despite outrage about Trump’s tweets, the president doubled down on his racist attacks, saying the congresswomen were “hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down.”

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office Thursday, Trump attempted to distance himself from his supporters’ chants.

JON KARL: When your supporters last night were chanting “Send her back,” why didn’t you stop them? Why didn’t you ask them to stop saying that?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, number one, I think I did. I started speaking very quickly. It really was a loud—I disagree with it, by the way. But it was quite a chant. And I felt a little bit badly about it. But I will say this: I did—and I started speaking very quickly. But it started up rather, rather fast, as you probably noticed.

JON KARL: So, you’ll tell your supporters never to say that again?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I would say that I—I was not happy with it. I disagree with it.

AMY GOODMAN: “I felt a little bit badly about it,” Trump said, though, again, pausing 13 seconds to allow the chant to ring out.

Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar responded to the president’s actions while speaking to reporters Thursday.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: I want to make sure that every single person who is in this country, who’s aspiring to become part of the American fabric, understands that nothing this president says should be taken to heart. We are Americans as much as everyone else. This is our country, and we are where we belong. And I told people on my election night, in the great state of Minnesota we don’t just welcome refugees; we send them to represent us in Washington. And as much as he’s spewing his fascist ideology on stage, telling you, as citizens, to go back, because they don’t agree with his detrimental policies for our country, we tell people that here in the United States, dissent is patriotic. Here in the United States, disagreement is welcome. Debate is welcomed. And especially in the people’s house, all of our voices are uplifted and heard.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday night, Congressmember Omar arrived back in the Twin Cities in Minnesota to a crowd of supporters at the airport. Her constituents had a new chant to greet her: “Welcome home.”

OMAR SUPPORTERS: Welcome home, Ilhan! Welcome home, Ilhan! Welcome home, Ilhan! Welcome home, Ilhan!

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Omar retweeted this video Thursday night, writing, “Home sweet home.”

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ibram Kendi, professor of history and international relations and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He’s the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His forthcoming book, out in August, How to Be an Antiracist. In his latest piece in The Atlantic, headlined “Am I an American?” Professor Kendi writes, “President Trump’s tirade against four minority congresswomen prompts the question: Whom does he consider to be American?”

Professor Kendi, welcome back to Democracy Now! Respond to all that’s happened this week. The House didn’t censure President Trump, but it did criticize him for his attack on the four congresswomen, telling them to “go back” to their “crime-infested”—to “go back” to their “crime-infested” countries. And, of course, they’re all U.S. citizens.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, and, you know, I think my response to this week is I think we have to continuously recognize that there’s a certain segment of people in this country who imagine that the home of America is for white people, and that when people of color come into that home and criticize that home, they say, “How dare you come into my home and criticize my home? You might as well go back to your home.”

Well, what if it’s their home, too? And what if they have the right to criticize it, too? And what if they’re trying to make that home better? And I think this sort of week has showed us that—how we’re sort of imagining who is American and what is America. And, of course, that’s a debate, as you know, Amy, we’ve been having for a very long time in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: The title of your piece is “Am I an American?” Explain why you wrote that.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think, first and foremost, this idea of “go back to your country,” or, in my case, “go back to Africa,” is something that people of color and black people have been hearing really from the beginning of this country. And it’s always caused some of us to question, “Are we an American?” At the same time, particularly in our era, it is rare that a white person hears this idea, hears this sort of shout to “go back to your country,” because it’s assumed that they are an American. And so, I just wanted to really speak through and talk through and really think deeply about the literal impact that what Trump said is having on people, and connect that to the history of people being told to go back to their countries.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, “Am I an American?” you write, “I am tolerated until I am not. I can dine on American soil until I demand a role in remaking the menu that is killing me, like those four progressive congresswomen of color. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to get in line to be a Democrat, in the way I’m told by moderates away from Capitol Hill to get in line to be an American. I hear the moderate message of compliance, of assimilation, of being happy just dining. And I hear the message from the man with the blood-red hat defending the moderate and giving me an ultimatum.” Can you unpack that for us, Professor Kendi?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, I wanted to really talk through and discuss the distinction between someone like Trump, who more or less says, as I write in the piece, that “If you do not act like a slave, then you are essentially not an American, and you need to go back to where you come from,” from the moderate, or even, to a certain extent, the liberal, who says, “You are an American, and this is the way you’re supposed to act as an American. You’re not supposed to speak Spanish. You’re not supposed to dress that way. You’re not supposed to look that way. You’re supposed to do this in order to essentially function in politics.” And so, one is essentially the—one is telling us to essentially be slaves, don’t ever critique or lead, while the other is essentially trying to assimilate us into this singular sense of what an American is.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on the fear that these congresswomen now feel, because they have been so targeted? Democratic officials are afraid, for example, for the safety of Congressmember Omar, calling for authorities to evaluate her security, as well as the others.

IBRAM X. KENDI: I think these four congresswomen obviously are very well versed in American history, and even, of course, the racial terror and violence that still persists. And they know that the people who have been most likely to be affected by this violence, whether you’re talking about the lynching era or even whether you’re talking about the era of police violence today, are people who resist, are people who resist American policies, are the people who resist police officers, are the people who resist racism. And so, as four of the most sort of visible resisters of American racism and sexism and imperialism, it makes complete sense that they would fear violence happening one day to them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about how the media’s been covering Trump’s racist attacks, and also the broader conversation about racism that’s emerged. People were particularly enraged that CNN had Richard Spencer on, the avowed white supremacist, to talk about Trump’s comments. In a news conference earlier this week, Congressmember Omar said, “This is the agenda of white nationalists, whether it is happening in chat rooms or it’s happening on national TV.” Professor Kendi, how can the media be anti-racist instead of complicit?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think the media should use words. You have words like “racist,” which is a descriptive term, which describes people who are expressing racist ideas that certain racial groups are better or worse than others, and people who are supporting racist policies that yield racial inequity. And then you have terms like “anti-racist,” which are people who express notions of anti-racist ideas, of racial equality, and support policies that yield racial equity.

And so, when reporters and journalists see people who are expressing racist ideas, they should describe that person as racist. When they see and hear people expressing anti-racist ideas, they should describe people who are expressing—who are being anti-racist. It is critical for the media to use words, to use descriptive terms, in the way they use it in other ways. I mean, they’re going to talk about this weekend as being very hot, as they should.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about White House counselor Kellyanne Conway defending Trump’s racist tweets this week. When a reporter asked her about it, she responded by asking him his ethnicity.

ANDREW FEINBERG: If the president was not telling these four congresswomen to return to their supposed countries of origin, to which countries was he referring?

KELLYANNE CONWAY: What’s your ethnicity?

ANDREW FEINBERG: Why is that relevant to this—

KELLYANNE CONWAY: No, no, because I’m asking you a question. My ancestors are from Ireland and Italy.

ANDREW FEINBERG: Kellyanne, my own ethnicity is not relevant to the question I’m asking you. I am asking you a—

KELLYANNE CONWAY: No, no. It is, because you’re asking about—he said “originally.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kellyanne Conway asking Andrew Feinberg, the White House reporter, his own ethnicity. Now, Ibram Kendi, you had an interesting—you raise an interesting point. You’re sort of flipping this around to the luxury of knowing where your family did come from, something many people, enslaved Americans, did not know, as they were forcibly taken from Africa and brought to this country.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, and I think that’s what makes it particularly painful for descendants of enslaved Africans, because I think many of us of course know that our ancestors are from Africa, but we cannot necessarily pinpoint exactly where. When we think of Africa, we think of, of course, Mother Africa, and many of us imagine Africa as, to a certain extent, a place of origin. But at the same time, we can’t pinpoint where. So, when you say “go back” to our country, it’s hard for us to not respond, “Well, what country?” Even if we were to go back to Africa, where would we go? And I think that’s what becomes—it just sort of reminds us of the slave trade, of the slave trade that millions of people were not only killed, but separated from their ancestors against their will. And now they’re saying to us, against their will—against our will, to go back to our country.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to end with Eric Swalwell. He just pulled out as a presidential contender, the congressmember from California. But he went to the House floor on Tuesday, just ahead of the House vote to condemn Trump’s attacks on the four Democratic congresswoman of color. He listed a number of Trump’s past racist comments. And as he did so, several Republicans interrupted him.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL: We have an opportunity today to condemn or condone. Birtherism is racist. Saying a Mexican judge can’t be fair because of his heritage is racist. Saying immigrants from Mexico are rapists is racist. Saying there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville is racist. Calling African countries [bleep]hole countries is racist. And telling four members of this body to go home is racist.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: Madam Speaker, Madam Speaker, point of order.

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE DIANA DEGETTE: Gentleman will state his—

REP. ERIC SWALWELL: Do you think it’s not racist to say those things?

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE DIANA DEGETTE: Gentleman will state his point of order.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL: Do you think it’s not racist?

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE DIANA DEGETTE: So, the gentleman will suspend. Gentleman will state his point of order.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL: Is that what you’re saying right now, Mr. Collins?

UNIDENTIFIED: Gentleman will suspend!

REP. ERIC SWALWELL: Mr. Collins, is it not racist—


REP. ERIC SWALWELL: —to say these things? Because you can say that right now.

UNIDENTIFIED: He’s out of order!

UNIDENTIFIED: He’s out of order.


SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE DIANA DEGETTE: The gentleman from California is out of order. The gentleman from—

UNIDENTIFIED: Out of order!

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE DIANA DEGETTE: Gentleman from California shall suspend. For what purpose does the gentleman from Georgia rise?

REP. DOUG COLLINS: I make a point of order: The gentleman’s words are unparliamentary, and I request they be taken down.

UNIDENTIFIED: They’re President Trump’s words. They’re Trump’s words!



AMY GOODMAN: Very interestingly, Republicans interrupted him by citing an obscure House rule, a line contained in congressional rules that states, “References to racial or other discrimination on the part of the president are not in order.” The original rulebook banning the use of the word “racist” was written by Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, but any irony in that was apparently lost on the Republicans, and the resolution passed. You end your piece, “Am I an American?” by writing, Professor Kendi, “Maybe I should have been asking, 'Who controls America?' instead of 'Am I an American?'” Your final thoughts?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I wrote that because whoever controls in America—whoever controls America is really the one who’s going to determine who is an American.

And I should also add that when we say someone is being racist, we are not making a personal attack, as some of those House Republicans made the case. We’re describing them. So this isn’t about attacking anyone. This is describing what they’re saying. This is describing what they’re doing. This is not about what’s in somebody’s heart, what’s in somebody’s bones, what’s in someone’s organs. This is about what’s in their words and their actions. And that’s how we determine who is being racist or anti-racist.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His forthcoming book, How to Be an Antiracist. And we’ll link to his piece in The Atlantic headlined “Am I an American?” Ibram Kendi will be back on Democracy Now! in just a few weeks when his book comes out.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. When we come back, a whistleblower joins us, who has lessons for us, an act she engaged in more than 15 years ago. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Clandestino” by Lila Downs, here in our Democracy Now! studio. To hear her performance and the interview, go to I’m Amy Goodman.

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