Donald Trump’s long history of racism, from the 1970s to 2019
If you ask President Donald Trump, he isn’t racist. To the contrary, he’s repeatedly said that he’s “the least racist person that you’ve ever encountered.”
Trump’s actual record, however, tells a very different story.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly made explicitly racist and otherwise bigoted remarks, from calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists to proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the US to suggesting a judge should recuse himself from a case solely because of the judge’s Mexican heritage.
The trend has continued into his presidency. From stereotyping a black reporter to pandering to white supremacists after they held a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to cracking a joke about the Trail of Tears, Trump hasn’t stopped with the racist acts after his 2016 election.
Most recently, Trump tweeted that several black and brown members of Congress are “from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and that they should “go back” to those countries. The tweets, aimed at Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), exemplify a common racist trope used against immigrants and minority groups who criticize US policies. Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, condemned Trump’s tweets as racist.
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
….and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
….it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
This is nothing new for Trump. In fact, the very first time that Trump appeared in the pages of the New York Times, back in the 1970s, was when the US Department of Justice sued him for racial discrimination. Since then, he has repeatedly appeared in newspaper pages across the world as he inspired more similar controversies.
This long history is important. It would be one thing if Trump simply misspoke one or two times. But when you take all of Trump’s actions and comments together, a clear pattern emerges — one that suggests that bigotry is not just political opportunism on Trump’s part but a real element of Trump’s personality, character, and career.
Trump has a long history of racist controversies
- 1973: The US Department of Justice — under the Nixon administration, out of all administrations — sued the Trump Management Corporation for violating the Fair Housing Act. Federal officials found evidence that Trump had refused to rent to black tenants and lied to black applicants about whether apartments were available, among other accusations. Trump said the federal government was trying to get him to rent to welfare recipients. In the aftermath, he signed an agreement in 1975 agreeing not to discriminate to renters of color without admitting to discriminating before.
- 1980s: Kip Brown, a former employee at Trump’s Castle, accused another one of Trump’s businesses of discrimination. “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor,” Brown said. “It was the eighties, I was a teenager, but I remember it: They put us all in the back.”
- 1988: In a commencement speech at Lehigh University, Trump spent much of his speech accusing countries like Japan of “stripping the United States of economic dignity.” This matches much of his current rhetoric on China.
- 1989: In a controversial case that’s been characterized as a modern-day lynching, four black teenagers and one Latino teenager — the “Central Park Five” — were accused of attacking and raping a jogger in New York City. Trump immediately took charge in the case, running an ad in local papers demanding, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” The teens’ convictions were later vacated after they spent seven to 13 years in prison, and the city paid $41 million in a settlement to the teens. But Trump in October 2016 said he still believes they’re guilty, despite the DNA evidence to the contrary.
- 1991: A book by John O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, quoted Trump’s criticism of a black accountant: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.” Trump at first denied the remarks, but later said in a 1997 Playboy interview that “the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true.”
- 1992: The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino had to pay a $200,000 fine because it transferred black and women dealers off tables to accommodate a big-time gambler’s prejudices.
- 1993: In congressional testimony, Trump said that some Native American reservations operating casinos shouldn’t be allowed because “they don’t look like Indians to me.”
- 2000: In opposition to a casino proposed by the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, which he saw as a financial threat to his casinos in Atlantic City, Trump secretly ran a series of ads suggesting the tribe had a “record of criminal activity [that] is well documented.”
- 2004: In season two of The Apprentice, Trump fired Kevin Allen, a black contestant, for being overeducated. “You’re an unbelievably talented guy in terms of education, and you haven’t done anything,” Trump said on the show. “At some point you have to say, ‘That’s enough.’”
- 2005: Trump publicly pitched what was essentially The Apprentice: White People vs. Black People. He said he “wasn’t particularly happy” with the most recent season of his show, so he was considering “an idea that is fairly controversial — creating a team of successful African Americans versus a team of successful whites. Whether people like that idea or not, it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world.”
- 2010: In 2010, there was a huge national controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” — a proposal to build a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Trump opposed the project, calling it “insensitive,” and offered to buy out one of the investors in the project. On The Late Show With David Letterman, Trump argued, referring to Muslims, “Well, somebody’s blowing us up. Somebody’s blowing up buildings, and somebody’s doing lots of bad stuff.”
- 2011: Trump played a big role in pushing false rumors that Obama — the country’s first black president — was not born in the US. He even sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama’s birth certificate. Obama later released his birth certificate, calling Trump a ”carnival barker.” (The research has found a strong correlation between “birtherism,” as this conspiracy theory is called, and racism.) Trump has reportedly continued pushing this conspiracy theory in private.
- 2011: While Trump suggested that Obama wasn’t born in the US, he also argued that maybe Obama wasn’t a good enough student to have gotten into Columbia or Harvard Law School, and demanded Obama release his university transcripts. Trump claimed, “I heard he was a terrible student. Terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?”
For many people, none of these incidents, individually, may be totally damning: One of these alone might suggest that Trump is simply a bad speaker and perhaps racially insensitive (“politically incorrect,” as he would put it), but not overtly racist.
But when you put all these events together, a clear pattern emerges. At the very least, Trump has a history of playing into people’s racism to bolster himself — and that likely says something about him too.
And of course, there’s everything that’s happened through and since his presidential campaign.
As a candidate and president, Trump has made many more racist comments
On top of all that history, Trump has repeatedly made racist — often explicitly so — remarks on the campaign trail and as president:
- Trump launched his campaign in 2015 by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” who are “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs” to the US. His campaign was largely built on building a wall to keep these immigrants out of the US.
- As a candidate in 2015, Trump called for a ban on all Muslims coming into the US. His administration eventually implemented a significantly watered-down version of the policy.
- When asked at a 2016 Republican debate whether all 1.6 billion Muslims hate the US, Trump said, “I mean a lot of them. I mean a lot of them.”
- He argued in 2016 that Judge Gonzalo Curiel — who was overseeing the Trump University lawsuit — should recuse himself from the case because of his Mexican heritage and membership in a Latino lawyers association. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump, later called such comments “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
- Trump has been repeatedly slow to condemn white supremacists who endorse him, and he regularly retweeted messages from white supremacists and neo-Nazis during his presidential campaign.
- He tweeted and later deleted an image that showed Hillary Clinton in front of a pile of money and by a Jewish Star of David that said, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” The tweet had some very obvious anti-Semitic imagery, but Trump insisted that the star was a sheriff’s badge, and said his campaign shouldn’t have deleted it.
- Trump has repeatedly referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas,” using her controversial — and later walked-back — claims to Native American heritage as a punchline.
- At the 2016 Republican convention, Trump officially seized the mantle of the “law and order” candidate — an obvious dog whistle playing to white fears of black crime, even though crime in the US is historically low. His speeches, comments, and executive actions after he took office have continued this line of messaging.
- In a pitch to black voters in 2016, Trump said, “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”
- Trump stereotyped a black reporter at a press conference in February 2017. When April Ryan asked him if he plans to meet and work with the Congressional Black Caucus, he repeatedly asked her to set up the meeting — even as she insisted that she’s “just a reporter.”
- In the week after white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Trump repeatedly said that “many sides” and “both sides” were to blame for the violence and chaos that ensued — suggesting that the white supremacist protesters were morally equivalent to counterprotesters that stood against racism. He also said that there were “some very fine people” among the white supremacists. All of this seemed like a dog whistle to white supremacists — and many of them took it as one, with white nationalist Richard Spencer praising Trump for “defending the truth.”
- Throughout 2017, Trump repeatedly attacked NFL players who, by kneeling or otherwise silently protesting during the national anthem, demonstrated against systemic racism in America.
- Trump reportedly said in 2017 that people who came to the US from Haiti “all have AIDS,” and he lamented that people who came to the US from Nigeria would never “go back to their huts” once they saw America. The White House denied that Trump ever made these comments.
- Speaking about immigration in a bipartisan meeting in January 2018, Trump reportedly asked, in reference to Haiti and African countries, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He then reportedly suggested that the US should take more people from countries like Norway. The implication: Immigrants from predominantly white countries are good, while immigrants from predominantly black countries are bad.
- Trump denied making the “shithole” comments, although some senators present at the meeting said they happened. The White House, meanwhile, suggested that the comments, like Trump’s remarks about the NFL protests, will play well to his base. The only connection between Trump’s remarks about the NFL protests and his “shithole” comments is race.
- Trump mocked Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, again calling her “Pocahontas” in a tweet before adding, “See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” The capitalized “TRAIL” is seemingly a reference to the Trail of Tears — a horrific act of ethnic cleansing in the 19th century in which Native Americans were forcibly relocated, causing thousands of deaths.
- Trump tweeted that several black and brown members of Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — are “from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and that they should “go back” to those countries. It’s a common racist trope to say that black and brown people, particularly immigrants, should go back to their countries of origin. Three of four of the members of Congress whom Trump targeted were born in the US.
This list is not comprehensive, instead relying on some of the major examples since Trump announced his candidacy. But once again, there’s a pattern of racism and bigotry here that suggests Trump isn’t just misspeaking; it is who he is.
Are Trump’s actions and comments “racist”? Or are they “bigoted”?
One of the common defenses for Trump is that he’s not necessarily racist, because the Muslim and Mexican people he often targets don’t actually comprise a race.
Disgraced journalist Mark Halperin, for example, said as much when Trump argued Judge Curiel should recuse himself from the Trump University case because of his Mexican heritage, making the astute observation that “Mexico isn’t a race.”
Kristof made a similar point in the New York Times: “My view is that ‘racist’ can be a loaded word, a conversation stopper more than a clarifier, and that we should be careful not to use it simply as an epithet. Moreover, Muslims and Latinos can be of any race, so some of those statements technically reflect not so much racism as bigotry. It’s also true that with any single statement, it is possible that Trump misspoke or was misconstrued.”
This critique misses the point on two levels.
For one, the argument is tremendously semantic. It’s essentially probing the question: Is Trump racist or is he bigoted? But who cares? Neither is a trait that anyone should want in a president — and either label essentially communicates the same criticism.
Another issue is that race is socially malleable. Over the years, Americans considered Germans, Greeks, Irish, Italians, and Spaniards as nonwhite people of different races. That’s changed. Similarly, some Americans today consider Latinos and, to a lesser degree, some people with Muslim and Jewish backgrounds as part of a nonwhite race too. (As a Latino man, I certainly consider myself to be of a different race, and the treatment I’ve received in the course of my life validates that.) So under current definitions, comments against these groups are, indeed, racist.
This is all possible because, as Jenée Desmond-Harris explained for Vox, race is entirely a social construct with no biological basis. This doesn’t mean race and people’s views of race don’t have real effects on many people — of course they do — but it means that people’s definitions of race can change over time.
But really, whatever you want to call it, Trump has made racist and bigoted comments in the past. That much should be clear in the long lists above.
Trump’s bigotry was a key part of his campaign
Regardless of how one labels it, Trump’s racism or bigotry was a big part of his campaign — by giving a candidate to the many white Americans who harbor racial resentment.
One paper, published in January 2017 by political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta, found that voters’ measures of sexism and racism correlated much more closely with support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction after controlling for factors like partisanship and political ideology.
Another study, conducted by researchers Brenda Major, Alison Blodorn, and Gregory Major Blascovich shortly before the 2016 election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump.
And a study, published in November 2017 by researchers Matthew Luttig, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine, found that Trump supporters were much more likely to change their views on housing policy based on race. In this study, respondents were randomly assigned “a subtle image of either a black or a white man.” Then, they were asked about views on housing policy.
The researchers found that Trump supporters were much more likely to be impacted by the image of a black man. After the exposure, they were not only less supportive of housing assistance programs, but they also expressed higher levels of anger that some people receive government assistance, and they were more likely to say that individuals who receive assistance are to blame for their situation.
In contrast, favorability toward Hillary Clinton did not significantly change respondents’ views on any of these issues when primed with racial cues.
“These findings indicate that responses to the racial cue varied as a function of feelings about Donald Trump — but not feelings about Hillary Clinton — during the 2016 presidential election,” the researchers concluded.
There is also a lot of other research showing that people’s racial attitudes can change their views on politics and policy, as my colleague Dylan Matthews as well as researchers Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel previously explained for Vox.
Simply put, racial attitudes were a big driver behind Trump’s election — just as they long have been for general beliefs about politics and policy. (Much more on all the research in my explainer.)
Meanwhile, white supremacist groups have openly embraced Trump. As Sarah Posner and David Neiwert reported at Mother Jones, what the media largely treated as gaffes — Trump retweeting white nationalists, Trump describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals — were to white supremacists real signals approving of their racist causes. One white supremacist wrote, “Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full-wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters.”
Some of them even argued that Trump has softened the greater public to their racist messaging. “The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions,” said Rachel Pendergraft, a national organizer for the Knights Party, which succeeded David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will.”
And at the 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard, said that the rally was meant “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
So while Trump may deny his racism and bigotry, at some level his supporters seem to get it. As much as his history of racism shows that he’s racist, perhaps who supported him and why is just as revealing — and it doesn’t paint a favorable picture for Trump.