No, it’s not just you, Trump really is inspiring closet racists to openly display those feelings that social propriety had previously prevented them from publicly admitting to.
Can you imagine any other administration that would continue employing a senior Veterans Affairs official who prominently exhibited a portrait of a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in his office?
David J. Thomas Sr., the deputy executive director of VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, had just such a portrait until his primarily African-American staff collected enough signatures on a petition complaining about it to send to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie that Thomas was forced to take it down, according to a report in The Washington Post.
The painting, titled “No Surrender,” was of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and Confederate general who became the KKK’s first Grand Wizard in 1868. Thomas claimed ignorance of the background of its subject when a Washington Post reporter pointed it out to him.
“ ‘It was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice,’ Thomas said. He said he knew of Forrest only ‘as a Southern general in the Civil War’ and kept the portrait in his basement before decorating a new and larger office at VA’s administrative headquarters a few months ago,” the newspaper reported.
That excuse might be a bit more believable in the days before a simple web search could provide the details of the portrait’s subject and had Thomas not already been accused of racial discrimination by at least three of his staff members. A lawyer who represents two of those employees says that the painting provides proof of Thomas’s lack of respect for his African-American colleagues.
“You don’t hire someone who puts a picture of the Klan in his office unless you’re” racially insensitive, said the attorney, John Rigby.
Other long time VA employees in the department dispute Thomas’s claim that the painting was only hung in his new office recently. A manager who reports to Thomas, Michelle Gardner-Ince, says that it was also on the wall in his previous office and that he had a special outlet installed in his new office to ensure that he could have the painting illuminated with a light.
“He said, ‘My wife told me I shouldn’t put this picture up,’ ” pointing to the Forrest portrait,” Gardner-Ince recalled, “ ‘but I said, I don’t care; I like it.’ It’s been there for a long time.”
Thomas’ employees only realized the offensive nature of the painting after a union steward attending a meeting in their supervisor’s office identified the portrait as one of the founding members of the KKK. The local VA chapter of American Federation of Government Employees drafted a petition this week demanding the removal of the reprehensible artwork.
“We employees denounce the display of this offensive picture and believe appropriate action should be taken,” the petition says, describing Forrest as not only the KKK’s first grand wizard but also the commander of an 1864 massacre of mostly black Union troops who surrendered after the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee.
Now that Thomas has taken down the painting and claimed ignorance of its subject, the VA seems to consider the entire incident as having been resolved. A VA spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency “strives to create a workplace that is comfortable and welcoming to all employees,” and pointed to a policy recently enacted that ensures that VA “does not tolerate behaviors that interfere with an individual’s work performance or that create an intimidating, offensive, or hostile environment.”
“Achieving the secretary’s goal relies in large part on individual judgment and common sense of employees at all levels,” said the spokesperson. He said, however, that Thomas “received no complaints from his fellow employees and only learned about these concerns from The Washington Post,” adding, “Mr. Thomas immediately took down the print in question . . . and the matter is resolved.”
Whether you believe that Thomas honestly didn’t know that he was celebrating a noted Klan founder or not, this latest incident demonstrates just how pervasive the atmosphere of racism that has resurfaced and ensconced itself during the Trump administration has become. It must be called out and fought against at every opportunity.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.
Original reporting by Lisa Rein at The Washington Post.