A poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the 1963 March on Washington hangs on my office’s wall at the Brookings Institution, which is located just about two miles from where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. It is a constant reminder for me to insert issues of justice and fairness in my analysis and aim toward speaking truth to power. MLK’s presence in my office also helps me remember whom my work must properly serve – the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and those who are discriminated against. I do my best to channel MLK and his virtues in my role at the Brookings Institution to elicit good public policy.
President Trump’s policy positions and public statements put the basic moral definition of “good” into focus.
In stark opposition to these virtues, however, President Trump’s policy positions and public statements put the basic moral definition of “good” into focus. Yesterday, as has been widely covered, in an Oval Office discussion with lawmakers concerning immigration, with the meeting’s conversation turning to the protection of immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, the Washington Post reported (and several members of Congress attending the meeting have confirmed) that President Trump asked legislators exasperatingly, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Further, he suggested that we should rather want people from Norway.
The reaction in media circles was swift. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote, “Time to say it: Trump is a racist.”
I agree. Trump is a racist. The winks to torch-toting neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers in the aftermath of Charlottesville, his taking out a one-page ad to call for the death penalty in 1989 for the exonerated Central Park Five, and the gross labeling of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murders are enough for any levelheaded individual to diagnose Trump’s racism. I recognize his personal failings, but it’s my job to address their manifestations in policy.
And let’s be honest, it’s not just Trump who has internalized stereotypical narratives. Researchers do too. Our measurements should not burden the people who need good policy. For instance, advancements in data collection have enabled us to see disparities between various groups. But our social lenses often have us look upon disparities as deficits. Deficit thinking leads to investments into “fixing” people who are ostensibly already burdened by policy. If we want to change outcomes for people of color, women, and immigrants, research must be part of a strategy that changes the narrative of people being deficits.
Critiques of goodness are not reserved for priests and school children. Goodness should include our abilities to measure and describe the virtues of policy and leaders alongside other forms of performance like productivity, cost-benefit, and consumption. Think tanks have an obligation to measure how Trump’s views shape policy and impact citizens (and potential citizens).
Trump’s words have revealed his character. However, it’s what’s not being said by others that’s bothering me. There are major organizations and people who are relegating themselves as bystanders of oppression, having offered no public statements (not even a tweet) condemning any of the President’s racist and sexist behaviors.
Therefore, on this year’s MLK Day, in observation of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I’m not investing too much energy into Trump. And I’m no longer interested in hearing voices who state the obvious about Trump. I am, however, listening for institutional silence, wherever it might originate. Too many stand in silence and complicity as Trump abuses the office of the Presidency with the weapons of bigotry and divisiveness.
I am, however, listening for institutional silence, wherever it might originate. Too many stand in silence and complicity as Trump abuses the office of the Presidency with the weapons of bigotry and divisiveness.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”