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Rubbing the raw edges of race

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As he signed a proclamation marking the upcoming holiday honouring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, US President Donald Trump on Friday recalled the civil rights leader's message that "no matter what the colour of our skin or the place of our birth, we are created equal by God". Then came the questions from reporters.

"Mr President, are you a racist?" He did not answer and instead headed for the door. It is a question many were asking after the latest charged episode in a presidency that has played out along the nation's racial fault lines from its beginning. Mr Trump's comment to lawmakers that the United States should accept more immigrants from places like Norway instead of from Haiti or "s***hole countries" in Africa did not sound consistent with the notion that all people are equal no matter the place of their birth or the colour of their skin.

If it were a one-time comment, an inadvertent insensitivity, it would still have stirred a firestorm. But Mr Trump has said so many things on so many occasions that have rubbed the raw edges of race in America that they have raised the larger issue. A country tainted at its founding by slavery and struggling with that legacy ever since is now led by a chief executive who, intentionally or not, has fanned, rather than doused, the fires that divide white, black and brown.

The US President's approach to race has by many accounts damaged America's standing in the world and complicated his foreign policy. At home, his words have at times emboldened what was once a political fringe and made it more acceptable to express thoughts that in recent decades had been deemed politically offensive. And he has put the Republican Party in the uncomfortable position of having to defend or denounce him as it heads into an already tough election year.

"Is the President racist? I would say unequivocally yes to that," said Emory University professor George Yancy and the author of On Race: 34 Conversations In A Time Of Crisis. "Had he said one thing one time, we might say that was a slip of the tongue or it's an example of unconscious racial bias or it was a mistake," he added. "But I don't think this is a case of unconscious racial bias. I think this is a case of unabashed white supremacist ideas."

White supremacists agreed. Mr Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader, said on Friday that conservatives defending Mr Trump on Fox News should stop saying it was about economics and legal systems, rather than race. "It's obviously all about race, and to their credit, liberals point out the obvious," he said.

The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, likewise welcomed Mr Trump's comments. "This is encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us........

© The Straits Times