• Ideas
  • politics

Tavis Smiley: BFOTs (Black Friends of Trump) Are Normalizing Racism

5 minute read
Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of 50 for Your Future: Lessons From Down the Road

Long before Donald Trump was elected, I posited that Trump, despite what polls were suggesting, would likely do better with black voters than did Mitt Romney.

I believed then, as I do now, that Trump’s policies will be no better for black folk than what Romney’s might have been. I argued that well-to-do BFOTs — Black Friends of Trump — would do no harm by remaining relatively silent during the campaign, even if they signaled publicly that they supported Hillary Clinton while perhaps quietly voting for Trump.

I believed then, as I do now, that for many black voters, Trump’s racist rhetoric, anti-immigration stance, Muslim-bashing and sexist diatribes — politically incorrect as they are — would not necessarily be a dealbreaker for an appreciable slice of the black electorate.

Finally, I believed then, as I do now, that in a close presidential election, picking up a few percentage points with black voters would make a difference in the outcome. Unlike white women, black women meant it when they said ” I’m with her.” But, according to some polls, almost 14 % of black men voted for Trump.

I wanted to be wrong on all points. And, to be sure, there were some who suggested loudly and dismissively that I was indeed insane.

Well, an important BFOT has spoken up.

Bob Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, has now publicly implored black folk to give Donald Trump an honest chance at the presidency.

Recently Johnson said it’s time, “to engage the Trump administration on things he said he’s going to do. He said he’s going to improve the inner cities; well that means a job. That means more capital into the inner cities for construction and investment and infrastructure. That means taking the opportunity to make sure African Americans are treated fairly at the polls and every place else. So a lot of things that we believe in and we’ve said to the Democratic national party to do these things, let’s take that same basket of public policy issues, bring it to the steps [of] Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and President-Elect Donald Trump, all of whom I met, and say, ‘Okay, here’s your chance. Here’s your shot. We’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but you have to show up.'”

Johnson continued, “You can point fingers at Donald Trump, you can point fingers at Steve Bannon, you can point fingers at the whole Republican administration, but that’s not going to get you where you want to be which is permanent interest of African Americans being addressed by either party. As long as we lock ourselves into one party in a two-party system, we’re going to be diluted in our power.”

“Any group of Black folks that come together should fly under the banner of no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests,” said Johnson. ”And that means we don’t raise money for the Democrat or with the Democrat. We aren’t called together by a Democratic operative saying let’s do this. We aren’t called together by Republican operative saying that. Let’s do it ourselves and take our own destiny in our own hands.”

Full disclosure, I used to work for Mr. Johnson at BET years ago and he has certainly been lauded for his entrepreneurial genius.

But this notion of “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests” is hollow and bankrupt.

The black struggle for justice, equality and equity cannot be reduced to mere selfish “interests.” What about immutable principles?

Black folk, and the entire nation, have just endured the most racist campaign in recent memory, and it’s beyond troubling that even black folk are now rushing to normalize this election.

We can do better. We must demand more than these BFOTs are willing to sell us out and settle for.

Bill Clinton had Jesse Jackson. Barack Obama had Al Sharpton. And when Donald Trump infamously asked, “Where are my blacks?” I guess Bob Johnson might be raising his hand.

I’m not against giving Mr. Trump a chance, because whether I like it or not, he is my president too.

What I’m against is black folk running back to us from the big house with instructions on how we ought to behave. Especially when the new occupant has expressed no remorse for his racism, has fake friendships with select black people but no fidelity to all the other black folk, and continues to announce advisers and push an agenda that is antithetical to the “interests” of Black America.

What I’m against is selling black folk pipe dreams. Why should black folk believe that Trump will keep any of the paltry promises he made to them when he’s reneging almost daily on the campaign promises he made to his actual supporters?

For too long, black folk have been taken for granted by Democrats and ignored by Republicans. So, I’m all for holding President-elect Trump and the Republican establishment accountable. But I have no patience for Trump or any other apologists where the plight of black people is concerned.

Johnson is to the unrepentant Trump what Booker T. Washington was to the racial arsonists Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

What we need in this moment is not an accomodationist like Washington, but a truth-teller like W.E.B. DuBois.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.