Pastor Warren Stewart Sr.: Race relations are moving in reverse

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Local community leaders believe rhetoric towards race in America has shifted under President Donald Trump and his administration in a way that empowers white supremacists.

Today’s rhetoric toward non-white groups looks as if it has taken a few steps back since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr., says Interim Director at Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy Keith Miller.

“Trump’s language has hurt America because he’s so clearly racist,” Miller says. “I think he’s encouraged white racist rhetoric to come out.”

Miller reflects on the ideas that King preached, saying he thinks there is a misrepresentation of Dr. King in the national memory. King does not only represent racial equality. He spoke about overcoming what he called the triple evils: poverty, racism and war.

Warren Stewart, Sr., senior pastor for the First Institutional Baptist Church, says Trump has “moved us in reverse when it comes to race relations.” Instead of shifting direction toward a more inclusive and respectful environment, Stewart says today’s atmosphere has led people into an “us versus them mentality.”

Miller and Stewart agree Trump did not start this kind of rhetoric – it’s the same ideology King fought against. The president is part of a result that includes polarizing people into good and bad groups, Miller says. According to Miller, both groups see themselves in the right and they don’t want to hear what the other has to say.

Stewart says it’s very dangerous for Trump to continue to “spew that venom”  of accusing people of lies. Miller points out that King’s harshest critics tried taking him out of the public political discourse by saying he was a communist and, therefore, not loyal. A similar situation occurred with former President Barrack Obama when there were unfounded accusations that he wasn’t born in America.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on this Martin Luther King Day edition of "Arizona Horizon," we'll talk about rhetoric on race and how it impacts civil rights during the Trump administration. Also tonight: we'll hear from Jane Elliott, an educator who conducted a noted exercise on race the day after the Martin Luther King assassination. And we'll see how millennials are celebrating MLK-day with community action. Those stories next, on this special edition of "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to this special Martin Luther King Day edition of Arizona Horizon, I'm Ted Simons. Donald Trump's presidency is marked by rhetoric that many Americans find offensive, especially when that rhetoric concerns race and civil rights. Joining us now to talk more about this is Keith Miller, a professor of English and interim director of ASU's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He's also written two books focused on Martin Luther King speeches. And also with us is Dr. Warren Stewart Sr., a major figure in local race relations and the senior pastor of the First Institutional Baptist church in Phoenix. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. Good to see you both. How has the issue of race changed during the Trump presidency so far?

Keith Miller: I think Trump's language has hurt America because he's so -- clearly, racist, basically. The racism is overt in the statement today or yesterday. I think he's encouraged light racist rhetoric to come out from the woodwork, out in the open, and white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and I think it's deplorable. We see that in Charlottesville among other places.

Ted Simons: Is it a see change, major change, what do you see out there?

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: He's moved us in reverse when it comes to ethnic groups. It's an us versus them mentality. And its very dangerous where he is trying to take our country.

Ted Simons: Is it a toxic environment out there? Do you see a toxic environment because of the language being used?

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: I see it in the powers that be in the legislature and the congress. These are people that make laws. I see people who are his supporters, even in the legislature and congress who are reticent to even -- call him on the carpet for the stuff he says.

Ted Simons: Is it Trump, or is this something -- is he the result of growing hostility, resentment, growing something out there?

Keith Miller: I think partly he is the result of what I call demagoguery, which I define as a polarization of people that think there is a good group of people and a bad group of people and they only want to listen to their group and if that person doesn't have evidence, they don't care. They want to believe people because they are part of our group because I like that person and the evidence doesn't matter. There has been a degradation over the years because reason and matter don't matter to people on one side and don't want to listen to the argument. They automatically assume the person on one side is right.

Ted Simons: Dr. Stewart, has that been there the whole time and quiet? Is it rising up now?

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: Yes. The coloring of America, the fact that the white population in America is getting older, the birthrate is very low. The highest birthrates are people of color. I see a circling of the wagons of those that feel that this country came into being as a result of manifest destiny, and we have to keep people from taking our country from us. Trump speaks for those people.

Ted Simons: Was that language used back when Dr. King was still here and making speeches and getting the civil rights movement in gear? Compared now to when Dr. King -- early to mid '60s.

Keith Miller: I see a parallel. A lot of King's harshest critics accused him of being a communist. He's an instrument of communism, an instrument of the Russians. Therefore he department have a right to participate in the political discourse because he wasn't loyal. I see a parallel between that and them claiming that Obama was born outside of the United States, so he also doesn't deserve to have a right on the stage and participating in the political discourse.

Ted Simons: That’s interesting. Do you believe that?

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: Yes, I believe that, very much so.

Ted Simons: Compare the Obama presidency and the trump presidency, what we are seeing.

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: For this nation, the fact that we elected the first African-American president was a milestone. That's a historic achievement, and a fulfillment of the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The very fact, the very fact that Obama was not just an African-American, he was a person of both African dissent and European dissent from a biracial relationship, and so that kind of went against a taboo that blacks and whites should not be together, and with a funny name of Barack Obama, not Tim Stewart, but Barack Obama whose father was from Africa and was associated with revolutionary movements from in Africa.

Ted Simons: He won twice and probably could have won a third time. What happened to that America -- is -- was Donald Trump a -- some sort of backlash against Barack Obama?

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: Well, look. We celebrated Barack Obama being president, but there were many people who by their actions who resented him. Look how congress people treated -- you lie, he's giving a state of address and a congressman from South Carolina says, you lie. That was unheard of. Trump has picked up on that and now being the leader of the free world, he spews that venom every day. That's dangerous, especially all he has recently.

Ted Simons: Talk about that, the idea -- you mentioned Barack Obama first. Is this a boomerang kind of effect, parts of the country saying, all right -- that doesn't seem to be right, though? That doesn't seem to make sense. You tell me.

Keith Miller: I agree with what Dr. Stewart said. A lot of whites are afraid that their birthrates are decreasing and birthrates of people of color are rising and they are afraid of losing control. There is a misrepresentation of Dr. King in the national memory. People think King equals racial equality. He talked about the triple evils: poverty, racism and war. He saw the triple evil as entwined. He didn't think you could get rid of racism unless you address poverty. So, the country has not paid attention to poverty, and a lot of people are suffering, including the Trump voters. Poverty has to be addressed. If you are going to follow Martin Luther King, can’t ignore poverty and say we’re going to pay attention to just race.

Ted Simons: It almost seems like there was a country with Dr. Martin Luther King and now a country with Donald Trump. How do the trains meet? Is this a speed bump? Is this something you will look back on to say, we got through that. What's going on out there?

Dr. Warren Stewart Sr.: Let me say this. Dr. King as Dr. Miller has indicated is often misinterpreted. I hear erroneously that Dr. King preached for a color-blind society. That is totally long. He preached and taught color inclusiveness. Color-blind says, I’m invisible. Who I am racially, culturally does not matter. He said, no, accept me as being black, brown, red, yellow, white and make me equal in that, but don't make me white to be equal. I cringe when I hear people say that Dr. King fought for a color-blind society. That is far from truth as black is from white.

Ted Simons: Do you agree with that?

Yes I agree with that, and King also supported affirmative action, and people have tried to claim that he didn’t. But if you read his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” he is exclusively supporting affirmative action. He's a much more complex and richer person than people think.

Keith Miller: ASU's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy
Warren Stewart, St.: Senior Pastor, First Institutional Baptist Church

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