WASHINGTON — As he signed a proclamation marking the holiday next week honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Trump on Friday recalled the civil rights leader’s message that “no matter what the color 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 “shithole countries” in Africa did not sound consistent with the notion that all people are equal no matter the place of their birth or the color 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.
“Is the president racist? I would say unequivocally yes to that,” said George Yancy, a professor at Emory University and the author of “On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis,” published last fall. “That’s not something I needed to hear, this latest thing, to know that he is.”
“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. 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 with regards to race and immigration,” the site said.
The White House rejected assertions that the president is a racist. “This president fights tirelessly for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender or background,” said Raj Shah, a White House spokesman. “Any suggestion otherwise is simply insulting and belies all the results he’s delivered for minorities throughout this country.”
Mr. Shah cited record-low unemployment among African-Americans, as well as policies intended to reduce crime and drugs and promote school choice in inner cities.
Mr. Trump’s aides and allies expressed frustration that his comments were being interpreted through a racial prism. They have long said that he is an equal opportunity provocateur, given to using strong and politically incorrect language to make larger points. In this case, they said, he was arguing that the United States should set priorities for who it admits based on merit and skills that would benefit the country.
“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment,” Robert Jeffress, the evangelical pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a presidential adviser, told CBN News. “As individual Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to place the needs of others above our own, but as commander in chief, President Trump has the constitutional responsibility to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.”
Mr. Trump tried to appeal to African-Americans during the 2016 presidential campaign by arguing that Democrats took them for granted, and that with the conditions in inner cities, they had nothing to lose by giving him a chance. He ended up winning just 8 percent of the African-American vote in 2016, and polls show that his already meager support among blacks has fallen by half since he took office.
But Mr. Trump has argued that he has helped them because of the record-low unemployment among African-Americans, which was reached in December. “I am so happy about this News!” he wrote on Twitter last week.
Mr. Trump’s history of racially inflammatory episodes traces back to his first days in the public eye. As a young real estate businessman working with his father, Mr. Trump and the family firm were sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for discriminating against black applicants for rental apartments.
A defiant Mr. Trump not only rejected the charges but fired back with a countersuit, accusing the government of trying to force him to rent to “welfare recipients.” Ultimately, the countersuit was dismissed and he signed a consent decree requiring him to desegregate his properties, although he claimed victory because it included no financial penalty.
As he became more of a public figure, he did not shy away from wading into racially charged controversies. After five Latino and African-American teenagers were charged with beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, he spent $ 85,000 to take out full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty.
The Central Park Five, as they were called, were later exonerated and were paid a $ 41 million settlement after another man confessed and was linked to the crime by DNA evidence, but Mr. Trump has never accepted that outcome. As late as 2016, he insisted that they were still guilty and that their settlement was “outrageous.”
While Barack Obama was in office, Mr. Trump was a leader of the so-called birther movement, which promotes the conspiracy theory that Mr. Obama had been born in Kenya, a claim he did not abandon until 2016, during his own presidential campaign. As a candidate, Mr. Trump generated criticism for describing illegal immigrants from Mexico as “rapists”; proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the nation; and being slow to disavow the support of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman.
Since taking office, he has continued to provoke racially charged conflicts. He asserted that there were good people on both sides of a white supremacist rally and counterprotest that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va. He has repeatedly lashed out at black football players he deemed insufficiently patriotic for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, and he assailed black college basketball players and the father of one of them, whom he considered inadequately grateful to him for helping free them from a Chinese prison.
In a closed-door meeting with advisers last June that was reported last month by The New York Times, Mr. Trump made comments that sounded similar to this week’s. In discussing immigrants who have come to the United States since he took office, he complained that Haitians “all have AIDS” and that Nigerians who visit would never want to “go back to their huts” in Africa.
People close to Mr. Trump have long insisted that he is not racist and that his often crude language is applied across the board. Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former “Apprentice” contestant who was one of the few African-Americans on the senior staff until her departure last month, bemoaned the lack of diversity in the West Wing and various racially charged moments during his administration, but insisted that “he is not a racist.”
“Yes, I will acknowledge many of the exchanges, particularly in the last six months, have been racially charged,” she said in an interview with ABC News. “Do we then just stop and label him as a racist? No.”
Paula White, a televangelist who delivered an invocation at Mr. Trump’s inauguration and is described as a spiritual adviser to the president, has likewise rejected the racist label. “For 33 years of my life, I’ve predominantly done work in the African-American community,” she told journalists in September. “I’ve been a bridge builder, and one thing that I can say is 1,000 percent — and I know this is going to open up a lot — is that our president is not a racist.”
But critics and scholars said Mr. Trump’s remarks reflected a longstanding stereotyping of minorities and immigrants and have given permission to others who once hid such views.
“I’m pretty sure that many of the same people he insults and degrades maintain the buildings, sew the clothes, and are at the backbone of the businesses that he and his family depend on for their wealth,” said Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University. “It’s unfortunate that he is representative of a class of people who rely on the labor of those they seek to destroy.”
The event marking the King holiday that Mr. Trump held on Friday was planned long before the uproar over the president’s latest comments, but it put the situation in stark relief.
“When reporters shout out to Mr. Trump ‘are you a racist’ at an event to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, something is amiss,” said Ron Christie, who wrote a book about his time as an African-American adviser in President George W. Bush’s White House. “That the president needs to confront questions of racism or bias tells you that this isn’t fake news but a painful reality he must immediately confront.”
Mr. Trump, who had vaguely disputed reports about his latest comments on Twitter earlier on Friday, made no mention of the controversy when he gathered visitors and journalists to sign the King Day holiday proclamation. He was accompanied by Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King’s nephew, and Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development and the most prominent African-American in the Trump administration.
He stared down at his prepared remarks and stuck tightly to them, calling King an “American hero” who “opened the eyes and lifted the conscience of our nation.” He added, “While Dr. King is no longer with us, his words and his vision only grow stronger through time.”
Mr. Farris, likewise, had nothing to say about the president’s words, but at the end of his remarks, he turned to Mr. Trump and said, “Thank you for remembering that we’re all Americans and on this day we should be united in love for all Americans.”