Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Is this America’s new face to the world? Ninety-one proud new White House interns face the camera, with their beaming new boss, President Donald Trump, in the center. These shining faces, shown in a photo the White House released Friday of the 2018 Spring cohort, are very much “his” interns: Startlingly, it appears that all but two of them are white.
Is it accidental or intentional that the young man and woman of color are posed at the group’s edges, creating an unbroken show of racial homogeneity? And does the whiteness of the interns reflect willful culling or just self-selection, with black and brown potential candidates opting not to apply to work in this White House?
If the latter, the literal marginalization of people of color in this photo offers a visual explanation: It dovetails with the rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration.
From the retweeting of anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-Hispanic imagery used during the campaign, to the administration’s efforts to keep immigrants out of America, to Trump’s characterization of African countries as belonging to the cesspool of humanity, the President and advisers like Stephen Miller have made no secret of their interest in bolstering American whiteness in the face of demographic change that will put Caucasians in the minority by midcentury.
In fact, as a representation of American millennials (the demographic that White House interns belong to), this photograph is a fantasy. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, that generation is now 44% minority and “the most diverse adult generation in American history.” According to the 2015 census, whites were only 55.8% of the 18-34 age bracket, followed by Hispanic, black, Asian, and other groups.
By 2035, whites are projected to be in the minority, and this trend will grow, given that non-Hispanic whites are also an older population overall, with a median age of 43, versus 31 for minorities, according to a Pew report.
No wonder the Republican Party, whose voters are overwhelmingly white, has invested so much energy and media time in racially tinged visual and verbal propaganda. House Speaker Paul Ryan posted a very similar intern photo on social media at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and how many scenes of crowds of white males acclaiming Trump in the White House power sanctuary have we seen since the inauguration?
Trump’s intern picture also checks the box of those like Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who openly propagates the notion that the government must urgently act to protect America’s white population. In March 2017, for example, King tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies,” then clarified, on CNN’s “New Day,” that he dreams of an America “that is just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same.”
I would guess that King, for one, would approve of this spring’s intern selection, but the Trump administration should work much harder to prepare its interns for life in the real America – and in the America of the future – by providing them with a more diverse work environment.
The intern photo also raises another key question: Who will be welcome in the future to serve in the United States government? White House internships have long been launching pads into politics and eventual federal government service. What message does such a monochromatic image like this send to nonwhite young people who wish to embark on a career of civil service?
Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have already made clear the stakes of serving a leader whose cardinal principle appears to be that loyalty to him comes before an oath to the Constitution or code of professional ethics.
Yet Trump’s quest to politicize government institutions also depends on “passive purges” – as when people remove themselves from government service (the hundreds who have left the Department of State, for example) or who no longer try to enter, doing the leader’s job for him. Many may feel unwanted in government for reasons of identity – not just people of color, but non-Christians and those in the LBGTQ population.
It is telling – and heartbreaking, in my view – that three of the female interns wear pink dresses that are knockoffs of the one Ivanka Trump famously had on during the G-20 summit, when she inappropriately sat among world leaders while Trump “stepped outside.”
Two of the women have been placed in the enviable front row position, and the third is right near Trump. The message: If you want to do well in the Trump administration, look like his “type.” And whether you’re a man or a woman, that appears to mean: Be white.