How Does Trump's Racism Compare With Past Presidents'? : Code Switch We know his rhetoric has been described as boundary breaking when it comes to race. But U.S. presidents have been enacting racist policies forever. So as President Trump wraps up his first (and maybe only) term in office, we're asking: In terms of racism, how does he stack up to others when it comes to both words and deeds?
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Is Trump Really That Racist?

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Is Trump Really That Racist?

Is Trump Really That Racist?

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: From NPR.

MERAJI: We are just a couple of months away from the end of Donald Trump's first, and possibly his last, term as president of the United States.

DEMBY: Yeah, months because we're talking about inauguration, not Election Day, which is, like, just a couple weeks away from now.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: While we don't know how that forthcoming election will turn out, what we do know is that the past four years have been different, distinct. Yeah, they've been...

MERAJI: Yes, these past four years - how many years?

DEMBY: Only four years.

MERAJI: Almost four years have definitely hit different, as the kids say - the youth, the yout' (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: That was unlike any presidential news conference I have ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: You know, this president has an unconventional style.

ANDERSON COOPER: Classic Trump distraction play - a way to turn the media and the public's attention away from yesterday's disastrous stock. As we said, it's unprecedented.

CHRIS HAYES: An abuse of the public trust that is unprecedented in both its breadth and its brazenness.

DON LEMON: As this administration tramples all over the norms that make our government, our democracy work.

MERAJI: Gene, if I had a dime for every time someone referred to the Trump administration as unprecedented, I would take all that extra money, I would open my interior design business. You would be hosting the show by yourself. Styling spaces really is what brings me joy (laughter).

DEMBY: Yeah, this is what I've ascertained. You would leave me out here in the lurch by myself.

MERAJI: I would.

DEMBY: But I feel you. People are always talking about Donald Trump, you know, his breaking the norms, especially when it comes to race, which is the topic of our podcast. People always say President Trump is the most racist president of all time.

MERAJI: And there are a lot of things you could point to to augment that argument - birtherism, shithole countries, go back to where you came from. And there's more.

DEMBY: Mexicans as rapists, right? Very fine people on both sides.

MERAJI: Exactly.

DEMBY: That weird-ass quasi-denunciation of white supremacists at the presidential debate just a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead.

CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and...

TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?

WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

JOE BIDEN: The Proud Boys.

TRUMP: Who?

BIDEN: The Proud Boys (ph).

TRUMP: The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.

MERAJI: Yep. But as someone who has lived through a few administrations, I always pause at that characterization of President Trump as the most racist president. I mean, no shade to this country.

DEMBY: Oh, please, shade this country. Please take all the time you need to shade this country.

MERAJI: OK, actually, copious amounts of shade to this country. Racism was a founding tenet. How many presidents owned enslaved people?

DEMBY: Twelve of the first 18 presidents of the United States owned enslaved people. And, of course, how many Indigenous people were slaughtered to make way for this new country? I mean, whenever people say this, it's like, are y'all new here? Are y'all new here?

MERAJI: And by the way, neither party is immune.

DEMBY: Not at all. So today on the show, we're going to get into this construction a little bit. Is Trump that racist - like, obviously, you know what I mean - but, like, in the context of the ignominious racial records of American presidents? And if so, what does that even mean? And if he isn't, why is it that we keep saying this about him?

MERAJI: By the way, we're just going to do a quick note here. When we say racist, we're not talking about what Trump or anyone else, by the way, believes in their heart of hearts.

DEMBY: Yes, because as we discussed about the word racism before, that rubric about people's souls or whatever - that is a trap. That's not what we're talking about.

MERAJI: Yeah. We are talking about using rhetoric, creating policies that marginalize people of color. And to help us answer these questions, we are joined now by our teammate Karen Grigsby Bates. It's been too long. Hey, Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, y'all.

DEMBY: So, KGB, you talked to a bunch of very smart people about this question, about this construction, and I'm curious about what they said.

BATES: Well, my experts made it really easy for me because they basically all said the exact same thing.

JULIAN ZELIZER: I think he's exceptional in many ways. And at the same time, I think he's totally rooted in the politics of the moment.

DAMIEN SOJOYNER: To get beyond the grandiose statements that he makes, the actual policies that have been put in place by previous administrations have been just as structurally detrimental.

AHILAN ARULANANTHAM: The way he talks about it is pretty unique and then going back about a hundred years.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: I don't think the kinds of things that we're seeing with the president and the current administration are necessarily new or even necessarily unique. What's different is that Donald Trump, again, says the ugly parts out loud.

BATES: That was Julian Zelizer, Damien Sojoyner, Ahilan Arulanantham and Leah Wright Rigueur, all of whom we're going to hear more from. In this conversation, we're going to talk about a few of the moments that Trump has gotten heat for and how they compare, or don't, with past presidencies. And a few caveats - there is so much we could've talked about.

MERAJI: Because President Trump does not sleep.

BATES: No. He just tweets. And for the purpose of this pod, we're going to focus on presidential administrations from the past 50 years or so because, as Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history professor, says, you just can't make very valuable comparisons to presidents from, say, before the Civil War.

ZELIZER: They supported, by and large, the institution of slavery. So I think that comparison, you know, it gets thin very quickly. We are not in that period, and so I think it's important to measure what President Trump does based on where we are today.

DEMBY: Yeah. Like we said, most of the early presidents were, in fact, owners of slaves. So it's not really an apples-to-slavers comparison.

BATES: Julian says that, sure, you could do an analysis of how things have changed since slavery or Jim Crow.

ZELIZER: But then you miss and lose perspective on why his statements, like the one in the first debate, are so dangerous.

BATES: He's talking about that moment you just heard when Trump refused to directly condemn white supremacists like the Proud Boys.

MERAJI: Lots of free advertising for a hate group on national television. Good times. So, yeah, let's get back to Julian's point for a second. Where do you go from, at least Trump doesn't support slavery?

DEMBY: I mean, like, not as bad as the Trail of Tears. That is a very low, genocidal bar to clear.

MERAJI: Truth.

BATES: OK, another caveat - as you mentioned before, we're not going to try to divine what is in any individual's heart. We're going to focus on their policy issues. That's where Julian says we're able to see some real similarities and differences between administrations.

ZELIZER: People sometimes talk, for example, about Lyndon Johnson's language behind the scenes. If you listen to tapes of him talking to different politicians, he often did use very racist language. That's not what he did when he was in public. Richard Nixon famously had just a horrible vocabulary about almost every social group, but certainly African Americans, Jewish Americans. And Americans learned about his words during the Watergate process and were quite shocked. So lots of presidents have used words that are not nice or openly racist in private, and lots of presidents have not been nice people. Bill Clinton famously had a temper that could come out at any moment, and people didn't like really being in the crossfire.

But that's different than what people are talking about with President Trump. In his case, it's his using all that language in 2020 rather than 1964 right out in the public - on his Twitter feed, in a presidential debate or at his rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: And Julian says there's one more important thing to keep in mind as we're doing this comparison, which is that all of these administrations - all of them - are full of contradictions.

ZELIZER: There's lots of horrible things that presidents have done and lots of big mistakes that great presidents have done. And, certainly, FDR and the internment of Japanese Americans - that's one of the biggest examples of that. Here's a president who saves the country from the worst economic crisis and helps lead the nation in this war against fascism successfully. But yet, that moment - it's hard to get around how bad it was and doesn't undermine his entire legacy at all, but it's certainly part of the legacy. Same with JFK. In the end, he is remembered as someone who came out in favor of the civil rights movement, but until 1963, his record was anything but.

BATES: Which is ironic because JFK is someone who is remembered as a civil rights hero, especially in Black households.

DEMBY: Yeah, among Black people of a certain age, you know, there are those triptychs with Bobby and John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We also know, though, how so many Black voters at the time were skeptical of John F. Kennedy because he was so openly skittish around taking bold stands on civil rights issues.

BATES: Whereas Julian says Lyndon Johnson is kind of the opposite. He is known for using very racist language, and he also escalated American involvement in Vietnam.

ZELIZER: But he's also the president who fought for two of the biggest civil rights bills we have had - the Civil Rights Act of '64 and the Voting Rights Act of '65 - that made a huge difference in terms of ameliorating racial inequality and racism. President Trump doesn't do any of that.

MERAJI: So he's saying that with President Trump, it's both his rhetoric and his policies.

BATES: Right.

ZELIZER: I think in terms of the rhetoric of anti-immigration, for example, he's taken a lot of steps since the refugee ban that follow through on exactly what he wanted to do. And then there are ways in which the rhetoric is what matters. What a president says is often one of the things that has the biggest impact on our country. And I think that Twitter feed is something that we're going to be looking at in the presidential archives. And the kinds of words he legitimated and normalized will be part of the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Imagining President Trump's Twitter feed in the presidential archives is hard to wrap my brain around - very difficult.

BATES: Imagine if you're in high school and you're doing research for a paper and you get to go through the archives and you see some of that stuff. It's like, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: OK, so we've made it through all the caveats, all the conditions. Now, are you two ready to dive into this game of Who Wore It Best? - the it, of course, being presidential racism?

DEMBY: Of course. Let's do it.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. Sounds like a fun game.

BATES: OK. Well, Julian talked a lot about presidential rhetoric, so I want to start with a moment of that rhetoric that got people really riled up early in Trump's run.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

MERAJI: Ah, the infamous moments when a lot of the press started to describe Donald Trump's rhetoric as, quote, unquote, "racially charged."

DEMBY: Racially charged. Can we just stipulate that, henceforth, the only time you can say something is racially charged is, like, when you swipe your reparations credit card.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: That's the only time. That's the only time.

MERAJI: Let's hope there are reparations credit cards.

DEMBY: Or maybe, like, if a white supremacist uses a Mophie in the airport.

MERAJI: Racially charged. Anyway, this was a key issue for Donald Trump during his campaign. He wanted to build the wall. He wanted to make Mexico pay for it, which feels like forever ago.

BATES: It does. And focusing so much of his campaign on talking about immigration and border control and demonizing Mexicans and Central Americans means that the president has been, understandably, under a lot of scrutiny for his immigration policies.

MERAJI: Expanding detention, family separation, banning Muslims, making it more difficult for people to get asylum, ending programs that helped immigrants stay in the U.S. legally like DACA and TPS. There's probably more. Tweet at us.

BATES: (Laughter) That's quite a greatest-hits list. But what we can't forget is that a lot of the most punitive policies when it comes to immigration were actually perfected under previous administrations.

ISABETH MENDOZA: I was 16 years old when my dad was deported. It was the year 2008. And I don't remember the exact date. But I remember it was springtime.

MERAJI: I know that voice.

BATES: Yes. That's Isabeth Mendoza. She goes by Isa. She was an intern at NPR West in 2018. And as you may have deduced from what she said, Isabeth's father was deported during the George W. Bush administration as part of a policy called Secure Communities.

MENDOZA: He got a DUI. And I think - the way that I understand Secure Communities works is they run your fingerprints through a database to see, you know, what else do you have on your record.

MERAJI: All right. We're going to do a little Secure Communities explanatory comma. Secure Communities was basically a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI where when someone was arrested, a local jurisdiction would share their fingerprints with the FBI, who would then automatically share them with the Department of Homeland Security as well. And the idea was to prioritize deporting people who were considered, quote, "significant threats to public safety," unquote.

BATES: What was on Isabeth's dad's record was that he was in the country illegally. He'd let his paperwork expire. So when he got stopped for the DUI, it escalated to him being forced to leave the country.

MENDOZA: I was learning in school, too, about how, under the Clinton administration, all the new gadgets and the surveillance that was put on the southern border specifically. And so when I was learning about that, I was like, how the heck did, like, my parents get through?

BATES: So Isa asked her mom if she knew about Clinton's immigration policies.

MENDOZA: Because I know she voted for Clinton. And I was like, did you know it was under his administration that this happened? And she was like, no. I didn't know that. And so that's when I started realizing. I'm like, hey, these Democratic presidents, they have been doing things for a very long time that have hurt immigrant communities. So it wasn't the first time.

MERAJI: I mean, Barack Obama earned the nickname deporter in chief when he was president.

DEMBY: Yep.

BATES: Yep. You're right. And I spoke to Ahilan Arulanantham, an immigration lawyer for the ACLU, Southern California.

MERAJI: We have had Ahilan on the pod before. We had him on right after President Trump took office. And he spoke to the concerns of some of our listeners who were very worried about President Trump's stances on immigration. Ahilan is also a MacArthur genius. Just going to drop that out there because...

DEMBY: Ooh, flex.

MERAJI: ...If I was a MacArthur genius, I would want everyone to remind the world of that.

DEMBY: Yeah, pop your collar every opportunity.

MERAJI: Take note.

DEMBY: Pop his collar for him, in this case.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: Well, Ahilan, in all of his genius, told us that Isa's right.

ARULANANTHAM: I think if you want to tell the overall story of the rise of our current mass incarceration of immigrants and total punitive, draconian model of immigration policy more generally, you have to start that story no sort of later than the mid-'90s. And you have to lay - blame the Clinton administration, for sure.

BATES: Bill Clinton was a Democrat, as we know. But there was a Republican majority in Congress in 1996. And they drafted this major immigration reform bill. That bill actually passed. And Clinton signed it into law. It's now known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

DEMBY: That's a mouthful. But...

MERAJI: Yeah, it is. Phew.

DEMBY: ...But that law did a few big, big things. It expanded the number of crimes for which a person could be deported from the U.S. It said that a person could be held in jail while they were waiting for a decision in their immigration case.

ARULANANTHAM: So like, it doesn't matter - if you have a controlled substance offense that has any element of trafficking in it, like sale - even if it's a sale of a very small quantity - then you had to be deported. It didn't matter how long you'd lived here, how many children you had, whether they were citizens, dependents - nothing. No equities mattered.

BATES: That '96 policy carried right over to the Bush administration. Then, just after 9/11, George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

MERAJI: For a very long time now, there's been this push-and-pull with immigrants, immigrants of color, especially. Oh, we need you. We need your labor. Just kidding. We don't want you anymore - you know, depending on what the economic or political situation is. So here we've got...

BATES: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Clinton with the immigration bill. We've got Bush with Secure Communities. And then as we mentioned earlier, we have President Obama and everyone's favorite nickname for him.

BATES: In Obama's eight years as president, he deported more than 2.5 million people. That's more than any other president ever.

ARULANANTHAM: The policies that led to that, which primarily involve getting state and local governments involved in the deportation machinery of the federal government in a more comprehensive way than had ever existed before, and those were policy choices made by the Obama administration that produced that world. So, you know, if you're, say, an undocumented person who was arrested for having a broken taillight and got deported and thereby separated from your children or your spouse, you know, the Trump administration's rhetoric is really terrible, but being separated from your family because you were arrested for a broken taillight is much worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So the family separations that people are understandably very concerned about right now, those were happening long before President Trump was in office.

BATES: Right. Ahilan says that Trump's rhetoric is abrasive, it's loud, and sometimes it's downright scary. And all of the news coverage of family separations and deportations, building a wall, that catches the attention of many people who would never think about immigration because it just wasn't high on their list of concerns.

DEMBY: Or, I mean, it was a partisan thing. It wasn't high on their list of concerns because the person who was executing it was someone that they liked.

BATES: Right. But the reality is, when it comes to actual numbers of deportations, President Trump has deported fewer people than Obama. Ahilan says that's in part because so many places have declared themselves sanctuary cities and states, which are often better at protecting people from deportation than other places.

ARULANANTHAM: Now a lot of these blue states' legislatures and local governments are much more willing to pass laws that stop state cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. I mean, it's ironic. You're better off - from that standpoint, you're more protected under the Trump administration than you would have been under the Obama administration.

BATES: Ahilan says the Obama administration also opened or reopened family detention camps and put people in those camps, which are now being run, of course, under President Trump.

ARULANANTHAM: And yet, despite all of that, the sort of public narrative about that administration never caught up to the reality.

DEMBY: 'Cause when we talk about President Obama and immigration, we mostly talk about DACA.

BATES: Of course, if you've been directly affected by these policies, you're very aware of all this. People have had to navigate their lives around this before Trump, and they'll have to be doing so after he leaves, whenever that is. Ahilan said that millions of people are going to have to deal with the long-term trauma of these deportations, like Isabeth Mendoza, who we heard from.

MENDOZA: You know, there is just this culture that we have of pushing on and keeping - you know, keep moving on because life's going to go on. And it also becomes, like, this coping mechanism to be able to avoid the feelings and what's coming up and trying to make the best of the situations with what we have. And while that's - it is beautiful to a certain extent, it's also very damaging. I mean, it's such a heavy experience, and it's - yeah, it's heavy. It's traumatizing. It's triggering. It's all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: We're going to take a quick break and let you process all of that. But when we come back...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: ...Stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters.

BATES: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

BATES: Karen.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And we are back talking about how unprecedented or not President Donald Trump is when it comes to his policies that are racially tinged.

BATES: Racially tinged is when you're the governor of Virginia and you decide to go in face darker than your own IRL because it works with your costume.

MERAJI: That is racially tinged.

BATES: That is racially tinged.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: So the next person I spoke to was historian Leah Wright. Rigueur.

DEMBY: Ooh, ooh, ooh. It's my turn to know somebody.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Leah was a guest on our show last year. She wrote this great book about Black Republicans. She was a guide through the episode on Black Republicans. She's very, very, very smart.

BATES: She is. And Leah is just getting ready to publish a book on Ronald Reagan.

DEMBY: OK.

BATES: And she says that some of the parallels between Teflon Ron and Teflon Don are remarkable. Here she is talking about Reagan.

RIGUEUR: He's not Teflon when it comes to specific groups. He really is Teflon when it comes, I think, to white voters, even Latino voters to some extent and Asian American voters. But when it comes to, say, Black voters or when it comes to LGBTQ voters, Ronald Reagan is not Teflon whatsoever. And, in fact, those are the groups, those are the, you know, constituent groups, that are most negatively affected by his administration. So it figures that they would actually have - hold very negative opinions of him.

BATES: Y'all, Leah says that Teflon reputation has been used to characterize Donald Trump, too. To borrow a horrifying image from the president himself...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible.

BATES: That is incredible. Then there are the racist dog whistles that Trump is so known for. We hear a lot about how Reagan was this conservative icon, about what a positive, sunny-tempered guy he was. But, Leah says, Reagan's record is full of dog whistles, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who'd come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning $250 a month. She wanted the divorce to get an $80 raise. She's eligible for $350 a month in the Aid to Dependent Children program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who'd already done that very thing.

DEMBY: We did a whole episode about the welfare queen trope...

MERAJI: Yep.

DEMBY: ...Which Ronald Reagan helped popularize. He wanted to demonize people who were getting, you know, money from federal anti-poverty programs so that he could cut those poverty programs.

BATES: Yeah, exactly. Leah said that Reagan was capitalizing on a philosophical shift about how Americans saw poverty.

RIGUEUR: What this ends up doing - right? - is, in essence, creating a very different way of looking at poverty. So poverty becomes a moral failing. Wealth building - right? - becomes the opposite. That is moral and aspirational.

MERAJI: Yeah, sounds familiar. Our current president loves to brag about how rich he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

TRUMP: I'm very rich.

I don't need anybody's money. It's nice.

I'm really rich.

I have a total net worth - and now with the increase it'll be well over $10 billion.

MERAJI: And we know President Trump's tax cuts are a boon to the rich and mostly the rich.

BATES: Right. So this dismissal of the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, this hostility toward a browner, younger America, has characterized both administrations - Reagan's and Trump's. And by the way, that hostility has been a defining feature of the public health crises - AIDS and COVID - that both presidents have had to face, too.

RIGUEUR: And yet, because these are essentially, you know, both invisible but also hypervisible communities - hypervisible in that we see them in one particular way, particularly criminalized ways, but invisible in terms of how we, you know, think about treatment - these are people who are left behind and left behind to be ravaged. But even now - right? - the kind of reaction to the coronavirus and reluctance around this has echoes - very much echoes what happens in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

BATES: It's marginalized populations again - gay men in the '80s and a whole lot of Black and brown folks in the '80s and '90s. By 1986, Blacks and Latinos are three times as likely to be diagnosed with AIDS as white people, and 80% of children diagnosed are either Black or Latino. And even while thousands of people were dying from this terrifying disease, the Reagan administration barely admitted AIDS existed and perpetuated misinformation about how it could be spread.

MERAJI: And now, of course, we have a global pandemic - COVID-19. And CDC data show that Latinos and Native Americans have the highest infection rates, and Black people have the highest death rates from the coronavirus. And as we know, President Trump has been repeatedly called out for lying about how deadly the coronavirus is and how long we'd be dealing with it, among many other things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Leah Wright Rigueur says there's one more thing to keep in mind that both Reagan and Trump have accomplished, which is - where they go, so goes the Republican Party.

RIGUEUR: We may have thought of, say, Ronald Reagan and his conservatism as, you know, fringe in 1980. But by 1984, it's the mainstream of the Republican Party, by and large. And it has continued to be, you know, right on through neoconservatism and that kind of thing. What's different, I think, about Trump is that the things that we considered the very fringes of that, say, neoconservatism or just, you know, plain-old conservatism - right? - something that felt abhorrent even under - you know, even under Goldwaterism, those things have migrated not just into the party but now have a standard bearer in Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Shereen, Gene - meet Damien Sojoyner.

SOJOYNER: I'm an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

BATES: And he spends a lot of time on issues of criminal justice. And he points us to Bill Clinton as one of our most racially inflected presidents.

MERAJI: Racially inflected - that's a new one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Bill Clinton played the saxophone. He could dance. He would pal around with Black folks. Vernon Jordan was a bestie. Toni Morrison gave him the nickname the first Black president.

DEMBY: Yeah, Bill Clinton did a whole lot of, I'm cool with Black people, signaling when he was running for president. Obviously, Black people, heart of the Democratic Party - blah, blah, blah. But also, when he was running for president, he made a point to fly back to Arkansas to personally watch the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who was a Black man who was on death row and who was intellectually disabled at the time of his execution. And we still call it a Sister Souljah moment because Bill Clinton called out the rapper Sister Souljah - he called her a reverse David Duke - because in the wake of the LA riots, he said that Black people were being reasonable - when they were being violent during the LA riots, when they said they wanted to retaliate against police officers. So he was kind of winking at white folks, you know, who today might make up the Blue Lives Matter constituency to say, look - I will be tough on crime; I'm not going to be too soft on these Black criminals.

BATES: I can dance, but I'll throw them in the clinker. Yeah, that's right. And Damien said that, that public persona aside, some of Clinton's policies were distinctly unfriendly to Black folks.

SOJOYNER: His implementation of welfare reform, which both aimed to remove the amount of people who were on welfare off of the welfare rolls, but also particularly targeted Black people in terms of creating policies such as that if you were convicted of a certain drug crime - this was at the federal level - that you would not be allowed to have access to particular federal welfare policies.

BATES: Like public housing. So you do your time. You get out of prison. And where do you go? You often end up in an environment or around people who also have no options.

MERAJI: Which is why recidivism is so high. You know, you're back in jail or prison. It's this revolving door.

BATES: Yes. Clinton also gave us the 1994 crime bill, which Damien says was not a standalone.

SOJOYNER: Much of the federal policy is modeled after regional policy, after state policy, right?

MERAJI: Yeah, our obsession with presidential politics really does ignore all of the insidious day-to-day stuff that happens at the local and state levels.

SOJOYNER: And that crime bill, like, it's modeled after policies that were already in place in the Mississippi Delta region.

BATES: Damien says that since so many resources have been siphoned away from budgets designed to help poor people in general and Black people in particular, the numbers of people living in poverty have increased sharply. And many have had some kind of connection, directly or via a relative or neighbor or something, with the prison system.

SOJOYNER: There's a transference there of the wealthy being able to then take from those same resources that should have been allocated to poor people en masse the past 40 years.

BATES: Quick explanatory comment here - when grants were supposed to go to poor people, sometimes instead they went to housing developers. It's the same critique of Trump.

DEMBY: Right. Again, it's that reverse Robin Hood thing - taking from the poor, giving to the rich - a longstanding presidential tradition.

BATES: As this president might tell us, nobody's a better student of history than him.

MERAJI: But it trickles down. It trickles down.

BATES: And that's what happens. When you're down at the bottom, you just get a trickle.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: But the people at the top are doing pretty well.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: So, Shereen, Gene - I want to end the show coming back to that point that all of our guests made in the beginning about the importance of rhetoric. There were two realities that our guests pointed out about it. And they may seem contradictory in a way, but I think we have to sit with both. First, here's presidential historian Julian Zelizer again.

ZELIZER: I think the rhetoric, for me, it really matters. I think in terms of the actual policy changes that he has undertaken with relation to race relations, they might be less significant in certain ways than what he's unleashed rhetorically. I think he has, at a very late stage in where we are as a country, given legitimacy in some circles to kind of a language about race, about immigration, which was really - it should be unthinkable right now.

But by putting it out there, by allowing people to say, well, if the president says it, why can't I? I think it's going to take a lot of work to move back from that. And I think it could have very serious policy ramifications. And I just think it's going to take a long time to try to move away from some of the rhetorical damage that has been inflicted by this president on race relation.

BATES: And here's Damien Sojoyner one more time.

SOJOYNER: I think what we have to be forced to reckon with - and this is actually one of my fears about what will come post-Trump - is that with Donald Trump, people very easily say, Donald Trump is racist. Like, those words - I've never seen those words fly out of people's mouths so wittingly. Like, Donald Trump is racist. Whereas before, people were very hesitant about saying - calling someone racist. And the reason being is that our understanding of racism has to do with, really, words and intentions as opposed to how structural racism works - like race, structure, society and life, like, having to do with housing, education, food and health care.

BATES: And this, Damien says, is how racism actually works.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Subscribe to CODE SWITCH, you know, wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @nprcodeswitch. And on OnlyFans - oh, no, no OnlyFans? Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry with help from our intern Alyssa Baheza. It was edited by Leah Donnella with help from Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Jess Kung, Kumari Devarajan, Natalie Escobar and LA Johnson. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

BATES: See you.

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