Ilhan Omar: When I spoke out about systematic oppression, the Republican response was vicious

July 16, 2020
In The News

This past week, I met with community members and state lawmakers to push for more change in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. Floyd was killed in my Minnesota district — and his death was the catalyst for conversations around police brutality and structural racism that have begun to transform the nation.

Afterward, I told reporters, “We are not merely fighting to tear down systems of oppression in the criminal justice system — we are fighting to tear down systems of oppression that exist in housing, in education, in health care, in employment and in the very air we breathe. . . . As long as our economic and political systems prioritize profit, without considering who is profiting and who is being shut out, we will perpetuate this inequality. So we cannot stop at the criminal justice system. We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it.”

But minutes after my news conference, the Republican National Committee clipped 27 seconds of my speech and added a false caption that said I had just called for getting rid of the entire U.S. economy and government. Instantly, Donald Trump Jr. and right-wing “media outlets” were amplifying the false claim. That evening, Tucker Carlson dedicated a segment of his Fox News program to attacking me and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), another prominent woman of color, under the banner, “We Have to Fight to Preserve Our Nation & Heritage.” My congressional office and social media feeds were instantly flooded with hate speech, calls for deportation and, as is so often the case, death threats.

It was something I’ve become accustomed to as a black Muslim woman in public life. Donald Trump explicitly called all Somali immigrants a “disaster” for Minnesota at a 2016 campaign rally in my state. As soon as I was elected, the Republican Party announced it would make racial division an explicit strategy. It has followed through on that promise. Early in my term, the president tweeted another deceptively edited video of me, implying that I celebrated the 9/11 attacks (itself an Islamophobic dog whistle). As recently as last week, the Trump campaign produced a video calling former vice president Joe Biden a “Trojan horse” for me and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Such continued distortions are a sign of the president’s weakness among voters. We know his team wouldn’t be relying so heavily on racist distortions if it were confident in its policies’ popularity.

But it’s also something female leaders and leaders of color have dealt with for years. Hillary Clinton’s every move was scrutinized from her earliest days as first lady of Arkansas; President Barack Obama was hounded by claims that he was Muslim and not born in the United States. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress and my predecessor, was subject to an anti-Muslim smear campaign when he ran for Democratic Party chair.

Fear of the “other” — whether it is someone of a different country of origin, a different race or a different religion — stems, I believe, from the myth of scarcity. This mentality pits minority groups against one another in a fight for scraps, and those who benefit from the status quo are happy to see us distracted and bickering. Particularly during a pandemic, we all can worry too much about what we lack — instead of seeing our futures as linked and interdependent.

For years, women of color were told not to talk about the hate and the attacks. Addressing sexism or racism will only alienate voters, we are told. As Toni Morrison put it, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction.” And I would much rather talk about my work tackling climate change, or the law I passed to provide kids with school meals during the pandemic.

But, as the unrest sweeping the country illustrates, we cannot simply bottle up our pain. We cannot ignore the double standards women and people of color face as elected officials, and the way our media institutions act as an accelerant. We have a responsibility to speak our truths, to call out double standards where we see them, so that others can see our pain.

We need to jettison the zero-sum idea that one person’s gain is another’s loss. I want your gain to be my gain; your loss to be mine, too. When a refugee is able to flee oppression and come to America — that benefits all of us. And when we lose a member of our community to the virus or to health-care costs that are out of reach, we all fail.

The more we listen to those with backgrounds and circumstances other than our own, the more we can find parallels to our own experience. That’s why we cannot afford to be silent about systems of oppression. We can’t eradicate our problems unless we put ourselves in the shoes of others and craft solutions that work for all.

###