In August 1956 at a White Citizens Council rally in Phoenix, the organizers invited up on stage the mothers of 10 white people, each of whom, it was claimed, had been killed by an African-American. The 7,500 mostly white attendees erupted in sympathy and anger, and the outpouring of emotion dominated radio and TV coverage nationwide for several days. Newspapers across the country reported an upsurge of death threats amid angry denouncements of the African-American community. The “Angel Moms,” as they came to be known, represented all that was threatened by the influx of brown-skinned people into majority-white communities. Ten white people killed by blacks, with grieving, weeping moms — all the evidence needed for the evil done. It was an outrage.
What the coverage didn’t mention, but was later revealed, by newspapers was that three of the deaths were in auto accidents. One person died of cancer 12 years after a shooting. One woman had been shot by her ex-boyfriend. One man died in a brawl on a beach. And overall, African-Americans as a group were in any case more law-abiding than the national population.
With the distance of history, it is transparently clear that the Angel Moms, sad though their stories were, were on stage that night to help create a narrative of white victimhood, to tell a story in which black men threatened the very lives of the attendees that night, and to motivate the members of the audience to go out into the community at large and take their seething antipathy toward African-Americans with them.
The manipulation of emotion, the deliberate provocation of anger and the casual implication that an entire subsection of the American population was uniquely dangerous – this was hate speech typical of Jim Crow America, when prejudice and fear were used to drive communities apart.
There’s a problem with this story, though. It didn’t happen 60 years ago. It happened the month before last. Substitute undocumented immigrants for African-Americans, and this was the core of the event that Donald Trump held in Phoenix on Aug. 31. “Angel Moms” on stage, thousands of shouting white people, and the sad stories of a few unfortunate people being used to paint 11 million individuals as a single group characterized as violent and threatening.
By taking the Angel Moms up on stage, Trump’s messaging was clear: Look at all the hurt done by “illegal aliens.” They are murderous, he was saying. These people are scary. Be afraid.
For anyone who doubted that this was the message implicit in Trump’s presentation, David Duke, the former Klan leader, provided clarification. “Excellent speech,” he said. Duke and the Klan have some expertise in rousing folk against groups they identify as Others or Those People. I think we should trust him when he says that Trump is doing a bang-up job in this regard.
Too often, the actual words spoken by politicians can be crafted and spun to provide deniability. On the Republican side there is long-standing frustration at the ability of both Clintons to somehow talk their way out of trouble, while for Democrats the perceived racism inherent in Republican efforts to restrict voting rights is seemingly ignored by a mainstream media deceived by soft words. It is often simply too difficult to nail politicians down with their words, which is why, when their actions betray their true intentions, we need to pay attention.
In this case though, we can be absolutely clear: Blaming an entire class of people (illegal immigrants in this instance) for the crimes of a few of its members is prejudice. If the class of people are so identified by race, then it is racism. And if the intent is to provoke hatred of the group, it is hate speech. For once in our complicated and dysfunctional political process we have a moment of clarity.
Trump, a man born rich and who appears to have borne little suffering in his life, deliberately presented the Angel Moms to propagate the lie that undocumented aliens are especially dangerous. And it is a lie. Undocumented immigrants are more law-abiding than the general population. As a recent report by the Cato Institute says, “the chance of an American … being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion [emphasis added] per year.”
The rally in Phoenix showcased a man manipulating powerful emotions for political gain. Trump actually chose to use the mothers of car accident victims as evidence of a looming, existential threat to his audience from Those People. We have seen this before. There is a word for it: blood libel, a term with a long and bloody history.
Trump’s rally was deceitful and dangerous. It should be a wake-up call for all of us, Democrat or Republican alike. As Americans, proud citizens of a country founded upon freedom, can’t we each set aside our political party loyalties
and ask ourselves, do we really want to reward a candidate willing to plumb such depths?