It’s become standard for the internet to closely follow the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and seize on any gaffe or catch-phrase from the high-profile speakers. Last night in Cleveland was no exception—Twitter lit up with charges that Melania Trump had cribbed parts of her speech from Michelle Obama’s 2008 remarks, spurring #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes joke-tweets. But Melania’s apparent plagiarism wasn’t just an amusing mistake—it was an egregious appropriation by a starkly racist campaign.
Let’s flash back to 2008, when Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. While customary in recent years for the potential first lady to give a speech, 2008 was markedly different: Her husband had just made history by being the first black nominee for President of the United States, and it was Michelle’s first formal introduction to America. In her speech, she said:
And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.
And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
The words were not only an insight into the Obama couple’s shared values, but a way to make their skin color more palatable to skeptical white voters. Michelle drew on themes that are, unfortunately, not often associated with black America by white America: that being honest is paramount, that working hard is a must, and that she and her husband take serious stock in the American dream—a dream that has largely excluded black Americans. They were important words for a black woman, specifically, to say on national television.
Skip to 2016.
At 11:26 p.m. on Monday night, journalist Jarrett Hill tweeted that same passage from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. It was just a couple of hours after Melania Trump gave her big introductory speech to America at the Republican National Convention. Same context and, evidently, some of the same exact words.
Melania’s plagiarism is shocking on its own. That plagiarism was able to slip through the ranks of Trump’s campaign staff speaks volumes to the sloppiness and lack of control the Republican nominee has. If his campaign can’t catch such an erroneous mistake for his first time on the big stage, how is he expected to lead on the biggest stage: our country?
But that error isn’t even the worst one made by the Trump campaign last night. It’s the gall and hypocrisy of plagiarizing a speech from a black woman when your husband’s entire platform is predicated on maintaining white power.
Even though it’s marked by xenophobia and fueled by white nationalist anger and resentment towards America’s darker-hued peoples, Trump and his campaign have mostly steered clear of targeting black people explicitly. Trump’s main selling points are to build a wall separating the United States and Mexico, expel millions of immigrants, and ban Muslims from entering the country—hardly in line with the words Melania swiped off Michelle, that you must always “treat people with dignity and respect.”
Still, this plagiarism goes far deeper into the belly of the America’s racist beast: the appropriation of black culture by whites. The writings, music, theater, and dance of black Americans has always been a point of pride for the group who has always lived in America as second class citizens—and before that not even as citizens, but as chattel. The subversive power and spirit of black culture has been swallowed whole by the white mainstream time and time again, and almost always without the consent or acknowledgment that it’s being taken.
A recent example: Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams (who joined in on the Melania fun last night) delivered a powerful acceptance speech on racial justice when he received the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards. In it the actor describes how this appropriation is ingrained in American culture:
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.
Minutes after the speech, singer Justin Timberlake tweeted how moved by the speech he was. After some tweeted that the singer was a manifestation of exactly the phenomenon Williams was referring to—a mainstream white success taking from black music—Timberlake’s response was not to recognize his privilege, but to fold the black experience into a universal one. “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation,” he wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday morning, campaign chairman Paul Manafort acted as the Justin Timberlake of the RNC, dismissing the plagiarism on CNN by explaining how Melania used “common words and values” in her speech. “To think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy,” he said. The blatant dismissal of American politics’ most visible black woman’s words perfectly illustrates how little value is placed on the words and experience of the black body.
During a panel discussion with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes at the RNC on Monday night, Rep. Steve King, the Republican from Iowa said this: “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”
Comedian Hari Kondabolu summed it up best when he replied in a Facebook post: “Rep. Steve King said white people contributed most to civilization. Melania Trump then showed us how…by stealing from a Person of Color.”