Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming The Soul of (My) Black Boys. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
Over the weekend, President Trump took to Twitter, repeatedly, to attack Congressman Elijah Cummings and the predominantly black district of Baltimore City that he represents. He described Maryland’s “rat and rodent infested” 7th District as a “very dangerous & filthy place” and declared that “no human being would want to live there.”
In a way, there was nothing new in this latest outburst: It comes fast on the heels of him telling four freshman congresswomen of color, all Americans, that they should, “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places” from whence they came. Since his emergence on the national political stage, he has used his bully pulpit to attack and denigrate women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and those with disabilities. Trump has deployed a variety of well-worn racist tropes to describe black and brown politicians and cities, communities, and countries. His racialized rhetoric harkens back to a time of slavery and Jim Crow, and to the deeply rooted belief that America is a land that belongs only to white people.
It is relentless, and it is exhausting. Even though it is clear that Trump uses these attacks as a distraction from the investigations and impeachment threats that are closing in around this administration, we can’t look away.
Here in Baltimore, we were forced to defend ourselves. Locals launched the hashtag #WeAreBaltimore, urging others to share photographs and stories about our tourist attractions, our neighborhoods, and our community activists and musicians. What started off as repudiation of Trump quickly became an open love letter to the world about our city.
It was incredible and heartening to see how quickly people leaped to the city’s defense. But even as the number of tweets supporting Baltimore overwhelm the ones denigrating us, it still feels like a Pyrrhic victory. In the end, we’re wasting our time engaged in a war of words with a president who does nothing to change the racist policies that that have long gripped the city—and, indeed, seeks to exploit the city’s woes for political gain. Photographs and feel-good stories won’t provide more funding for our schools, bring more jobs, or end the decades-long impact of lead paint poisoning on our children.
These are the issues that I talk about every day on the public radio show I host in Baltimore. My listeners take the work we are doing to transform the city seriously. While there are days when we spend our time complaining about the state of the city and our elected officials, we understand that the only way that Baltimore City is going to change is if we are committed to improving it ourselves. When we talked about Trump’s tweets on Monday, my callers were outraged, annoyed, and frustrated. None were surprised. One wondered what took him so long to turn his attention to us—Baltimore’s stubborn homicide surge, recent mayoral scandal, and crumbling infrastructure make it a frequent target for conservatives looking to score points at the expense of liberal-leaning cities.
The city’s problems, my listeners repeatedly said, are real and serious. I point these things out not to give credence to Donald Trump but to make clear that the Baltimoreans fighting hard to change this city understand the challenges we’re facing. We’re trying to dismantle decades of systemic inequality, of economic disinvestment, and of racialized disregard and contempt from the nation’s most powerful elected official. This is the lens through which we view this country and why we worked hard this weekend to hold both Trump and our local politicians accountable. We can do both. As America’s progress on racial reconciliation continues to erode, we know that we are fighting a battle for Baltimore City to catch up.
At times like these, Trump’s America feels strangely reminiscent of the era when my father was a child. This is the world that he believed that he helped to change. He remembers life before Jim Crow ended—using separate bathrooms and water fountains, ordering his food from the restaurant’s back alley door, walking in the street while white people were on the sidewalks. He remembers what it was like to be called the n-word and to be told that he wasn't an American and that this country was not his home. “There are days,” he would say, sometimes with a sigh and sometimes with righteous anger, “when it is hard to be black in America, because your pain and suffering will be spread out before the entire world to see.”
My father was right. It is hard to fight the frustration and anguish that comes from confronting racial injustice and social inequality every day of your life. It is hard to sit back as a U.S. president insults and dehumanizes you and your city, and then watch as the world bears witness to your pain and, sometimes, your shame. And it is hard to stand up straight in the face of a country that is counting on you to focus more on surviving than on thriving, more on not getting shot than on finding joy, and more on teaching your children how to get low and stay out of the way than how to dream out loud.
But Baltimore is a city of survivors. We are resilient; no Twitter skirmish, we know, will be the determining factor in the fight to save our city and this country. We understand that after the tears and the frustration, the anger and the outrage, the photos and the feel-good sentiments, Donald Trump remains the president. Until that changes, we are stuck in his warped version of America, where he is writing the story and dictating the reality. This is a moment that will not stop until we stop it.
We must fight back with everything we have, protest until our last breath, and dissent no matter what the cost. We must be clear: We are fighting for the soul of this nation. And we have nothing to lose, as Assata Shakur once said, but our chains.