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Booker: Trump the One 'Playing the Race Card from the Very Start'

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speaks at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference on May 15, 2018. (Sarah SilbigerCQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, pushed back against critics who have told him he’s “playing the race card” when speaking out against racial injustice.

“You said to me before that I’m unapologetic in talking about injustice, racial injustice. I am unapologetic and I still remember being in one moment where somebody was talking to me like ‘you’re playing the race card’ and I’m like ‘it’s not playing the race card when you’re pointing out a reality that is existing.’ What playing the race card is is when you begin your campaign talking about Mexicans and Muslims, that’s playing the race card from the very start. [Trump’s] campaign was started with playing to those fears. It was a fear in demagoguery, playing to fears, and being a demagogue,” Booker said recently during a discussion with Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color.

“It’s hard to talk about the Trump phenomenon without acknowledging his – and I wouldn’t even call it a dog whistle; it is a bullhorn – that he does to those streams within our larger societal waters that exist. And I’ve seen it change in my community, and I’ve just seen it and I really lost my temper,” he added. “It was so hurtful to me when he made those comments about s-hole countries and then even the people in the room, which I think is even worse, who want to lie about that. I mean, to me the opposite of justice is not injustice – it’s silence, it’s indifference. It’s not having the courage as we saw many people do, ranging from the Holocaust to, as you said, conscientious objectors and even slavery.”

Booker said one of the best ways to tackle racial injustice is to have an “honest conversation and dialogue.”

“What folks need to understand, and we saw this recently from Canada to a recent shooting, the shooting we just had in the Waffle House, is we’ve had about over 80 terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11,”  he said. “The majority of them have been right-wing organizations, the majority of those white supremacist, folks who subscribe to that philosophy. And so we need to speak to this and we need to call it out unapologetically and that’s not playing the race card; to me, it’s playing the justice card.”

Booker explained why he supports removing about a dozen Confederate statues from the Capitol building.

“So I had a bill to take down the Confederate monuments in the Capitol. This powerful public space, hundreds of thousands of Americans come there and these are hurtful, painful symbols that were often put up, in my opinion, in reaction to advancements and gains towards equality in this country,” he said. “You go to Germany, you’re going to see monuments to people who died in the Holocaust all over that country. But here we’ve covered over that history and put on top of it people who were many ways trying to defend that horrific evil and fight for it.”

Booker highlighted the opening of the “Legacy Museum” in Montgomery, Ala., being led by Bryan Stevenson. He applauded the museum’s efforts to document lynchings such as the Colfax Massacre in which about 150 African-American men were murdered by whites in Louisiana in 1873.

“So what Brian Stevens and those behind this museum have done is they’ve gone out to document at a very high level of documentation – by the way, there’s many more disappearances – but to document the thousands of lynchings and, in profound ways, to tell this history. Most people don’t even know the things like the Colfax massacre. I mean, these are entire slaughtering of African-Americans that many people don’t even know that history in our country because we fail to talk about this history, even the history of how the laws coming out of Washington, going into the ’60s and ’70s were still effectuating the racial division in our country,”  he said.

“If we don’t talk about these things, how do you have a truth and reconciliation? How do you have a healing about our past?” the senator continued. “And talking about race doesn’t mean we should be in defensive crouches. It really calls for a more courageous empathy where we look to learn from each other and understand each other. And so the monuments for me are one of these realities where no other country has folks that literally took up arms against your nation and celebrates them in such a hallowed way and tries to gloss over, even erase the truth of the history. And people said this war wasn’t over slavery. Well, I go back to the legislative debates and see the truth of the matter.”

During the discussion, Phillips, author of Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, compared the Democrat and Republican parties with regard to supporting minority candidates for public office.

“The Republicans do a better job of promoting and backing candidates of color than Democrats do right. I mean, with all due respect to your colleague Tim Scott, it’s not like he was on a trajectory to be a U.S. senator until Obama won and then they’re all like, ‘oh we need a black person, Tim Scott, why don’t you go,’ right, so they have no hesitation around putting resources,” Phillips said.

Booker replied, “I mean, in South Carolina look at the former governor who’s now our ambassador to the United Nations. Nikki Haley is a woman of color, then you have Tim Scott. They seem to be making it a far more inclusive party… well, in South Carolina.”

Phillips mentioned Stacey Abrams, a Democrat running for governor Georgia who would become the country’s first African-American female governor if elected.

“By the way, we’ve had two elected black governors in history the United States of America. Most people don’t realize the lack of diversity, most people. I’m only the fourth popularly elected African-American senator in the history the United States. So these numbers are still very very low,” Booker responded. “Stacey, I’m in awe of her, I mean, she’s really one of the more overly qualified human beings to be a governor.”

Phillips replied, “But then you have the white Democratic establishment putting up a candidate against her in the primary and when there was nobody at the time running for lieutenant governor. So those people could have run together but the prior, the last white Democrat governor talked this other person into the race to be an obstacle to Stacey Abrams to prevent her.”

He continued, “So you contrast that to what the Republicans are doing, finding people of color, backing them, putting them into office, basically. It’s no accident, it’s not surprising that the Democrats are not able to galvanize the enthusiasm.”