Recently I've been thinking a lot about Barack Obama, Donald Trump... and Christopher Abreu.
OK, Trump and Obama you probably know about. But who's Christopher Abreu? He's a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, about to graduate this spring with honors. But last week, he wrote an op-ed in the Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper in which he made disturbing allegations about a late night incident on the West Philadelphia campus.
"I was heading home at 2 a.m.," he wrote, "which meant that students were stumbling out of bars and making their way back home as well."
He says a drunk student asked, "Where can I get some fried chicken?... You look like someone who knows where you can get fried chicken."
Abreu writes that he suggested they "try Wawa if you're hungry."
The white student yelled out to his friends, "I'm gonna go get some fried chicken! This n----- just told me where it's at!"
If those words weren't chilling enough, they remind me of something that one of the school's most famous alumni, billionaire Donald Trump, who received an undergraduate degree from Penn's Wharton School in 1968, also said this spring.
"I heard he was a terrible student, terrible," Trump told the Associated Press in an interview, a claim he's made in the past but one he doubled down on by suggesting he's probing that area of the president's life.
"How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? I'm thinking about it, I'm certainly looking into it. Let him show his records," he said, without providing backup for his claim.
Trump added, "I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything and they can't get into Harvard."
Let's be honest here: The bozos who harassed Christopher Abreu and Donald Trump were saying exactly the same thing. Which is: How the hell did this black man end up on an Ivy League campus? The only difference was the Trump had the extra "maturity" to leave out the stuff about the fried chicken and the N-word.
This is your post-racial America?
Look, racism is always horribly wrong, and it's always with us. It does seems to get worse in tough times, when getting a job or getting into an elite university is even harder than usual. It's sad but not surprising that opposition to affirmative action first spiked off during the stagflation years of the 1970s, or that in the ashes of the Great Recession in 2011, some people think a supersmart kid like Christopher Abreu -- or the first black president of the United States (whose flaws do not include a lack of brainpower) -- only got there because of affirmative action. (The facts? Abreu is a cum laude student at Penn, while Obama was magna cum laude at Harvard Law and president of the law review.)
But one of the few things that's worse than raw, rank-and-file racial prejudice is supposed leaders who fan the flames of ignorance for nothing more than their own ambition, which is exactly what Donald Trump has been doing for the last two months. Make no mistake, Trump has had pitch-perfect instinct since Day One of his presidential flirtation of knowing what dog whistles can be heard by the far-right.
In spending a year amongst the Tea Partiers while researching my book, The Backlash, I saw time and time again how the belief that America's first black president was "fundamentally not American" and possibly not even a legitimate U.S. citizen was part of the movement's DNA. All those crazy Internet "facts" about Obama's supposed ineligibility to serve as 44th president are a way to justify the sorry emotional response that Obama doesn't "look" like he belongs in the Oval Office.
Just like someone thought Christopher Abreu didn't look like he should be strolling down Locust Walk.
Trump -- with his bizarre allegations about Obama's citizenship and his college grades -- is hardly the only political figure letting his post-Obama-but-not-post-racial inhibitions run wild these days. In Oklahoma, a state legislator named Sally Kern voted for a bill to end affirmative action in state government; she said she's seen "a lot of people of color who didn't study hard because they said the government would take care of them." This kind of hateful talk is in the atmosphere. It's almost certainly not Donald Trump or Sally Kern's fault that those Penn students tossed around the N-word -- but the next time it happens it may very well be, because that is where our so-called "leaders" are leading our young people.
We don't know the name of the students who verbally assaulted Christopher Abreu, but we know how and where to find Donald Trump, and society needs to make a statement that his racially-tinged, fact-free statements about the president can't be tolerated. NBC should cancel his show The Celebrity Apprentice, and if they don't, sponsors should be ashamed of associating with him. TV producers should maybe start thinking that a candidate with fringe views is by definition a fringe candidate, no matter how famous. The cauldron of racial hatred is bubbling way too high in America right now. Donald Trump is a good place to start turning down the heat.