Though few blacks believed that the much-vaunted post-racial America was anything more than media hyperbole, a black president nonetheless left the White House with a health-care legacy, a healthy approval rating, and a rock star patina that the hyper-partisanship of the nation’s capital failed to tarnish. His presidency may have contained few Rooseveltian moments but history will likely record that the country was stronger for his travails. The arc of the moral universe bent perhaps ever so imperceptibly toward justice during his tenure, but bend it did.
Which is why, after the Obama interregnum, Donald Trump’s assault on civil rights has set many African Americans back on their heels. Nowhere was that sentiment more evident than at the NAACP’s annual convention in Baltimore this week, where two very different conceptions of what justice means for African Americans were on display.
With Trump’s unsurprising decision to decline an invitation to speak to country’s oldest civil-rights organization, it fell to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general and a former Maryland U.S. attorney, to carry the president’s banner into a very skeptical audience. Rosenstein’s work for Democratic and Republican administrations and his long tenure in the Old Line State was about the only thing that he had going for him.
His brief remarks were pockmarked with contradictions. Rosenstein invoked Lyndon Johnson multiple times. “The rule of law is not just about the words on paper the rule of law,” he said with no trace of irony, it “is about the character of the people who are responsible for enforcing the law.” It was a curious citation that only served to spotlight that Rosenstein works for a man who has shown himself to be willing, able, and successful in inculcating the Americans’ basest inclinations and an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, actively engaged in devising ways to strip away decades of hard-won voting rights and other gains.
Voting rights will be a touchstone for the NAACP and civil-rights advocates for the next four years and likely beyond. But Rosenstein did not address the issue (after all, the Trump administration faces seven Kobach Commission-inspired lawsuits, including one filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund).
Rosenstein twined Martin Luther King’s admonition that people had “a legal and moral responsibility” to obey just laws with another LBJ dictum, “The history of injustice and inequality is a history of the disuse of the law.” The intersection between just laws and disuse of law would have made for an interesting springboard into for his insights into Trumpian justice writ large. But by all indications there is not much to mine there. Instead, well aware that his audience was well aware of the myriad ways Trump has displayed his contempt for African Americans—not least by moving to review consent decrees with brutal and racist police departments—he turned to crime, a venerable topic for white Republican speakers facing black audiences.
Unfortunately, Rosenstein had nothing to offer beyond lukewarm platitudes. “We have to have the courage to get serious about crime,” he said, nodding to the attorney general’s crime reduction and public safety task force, a convening that is unlikely to come up with actual courageous ideas like reducing access to guns with or wrapping low-income black neighborhoods in a jobs and education dragnet.
Crime is the Trump administration’s go-to African American issue. The topic meshed, of course, with Rosenstein’s crime-fighting record in Maryland during a period when some violent crimes declined. But it is unlikely that many agreed with Rosenstein’s parting thought. “The DOJ works for you: The attorney general and I share your goals.”
The contrast between Rosenstein and Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general couldn’t have been clearer. Holder (introduced as “our warrior”) used the language of war to describe a “siege” on voting rights, “aided and abetted by a wrongly decided, factually inaccurate, and disconnected Supreme Court decision” (Shelby County v. Holder), which undercut the Voting Rights Act. Holder came down like a hammer on the Republican Party’s strategies to discourage blacks and other minorities, young people, the elderly, and the poor—the very people who voted in large numbers to send Barack Obama to the White House—from exercising their right to vote. Holder also heads up the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which aims to end the political gerrymandering that has put Democrats at an electoral disadvantage.
Rosenstein was as good an emissary as any at trying to rally NAACP conventioneers to Trump’s dubious notions of justice. But the deputy attorney general’s weak-tea remarks merely underscored Trump’s and Session’s obvious distaste and disdain for African Americans. Few were convinced by an administration that plays fast and loose with the truth and relies on nonsensical and pernicious stereotypes to undergird its policies. What Trump has done is prompt Obama stalwarts like Holder and organizations like the NAACP to incessantly drum into African Americans just how much they’ve already lost in six short months.