In 1986, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor was established. The goal of the Ellis Island Honor Society, which sponsored the award, was to “herald the importance of immigration to America’s prosperity and celebrate the contributions immigrants and their progeny have made to our nation.”
Eighty people received the award that introductory year. Among them were Victor Borge, the comedic Danish-born pianist; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; the singers Andy Williams and John Denver; athletes Martina Navratilova and Joe DiMaggio; the activists Rosa Parks and Aloysius A. Mazewski; businessman Michel C. Bergerac; and 70 more.
One of the other 70 awards was for Donald Trump, who was honored for being a developer and the grandson of a German immigrant.
You can see the list of all 80 winners from this archived New York Times article from October 16, 1986. But more on that later. The image below includes the last 16 award recipients from the alphabetized list. Note what Trump was recognized for.
The Ellis Island Honors Society and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor
The Ellis Island awards have continued until the present day, after a hiatus between 1986 and 1990. The language describing their purpose has evolved and become loftier over the years. But luckily we have the Congressional Record from October 10, 1986, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution in support of the initial awards. This tells us exactly what the awards were about and what the criteria were for winning one in 1986.
If you want to see the whole thing, you can read the motion to support the Ellis Island Medals of Honor in the Congressional Record (House of Representatives, 1986). (Note, it is slow to download.)
But I’ve provided a screenshot of the pertinent part, and also printed the wording related to the purpose of the award as text next to it. We can determine the exact intent of the award at its inception. This is how the honorees were selected.
Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who exemplify the ideal of living a life dedicated to the American Way while preserving the values and tenets of a particular heritage group;
Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who have made special contributions to the reinforcement of the bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin; and
Whereas the Medal will be awarded to individuals for distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation…
In short, these awards were for individuals with distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation, and they needed to be immigrants or their progeny.
The honorees were recognized for both representing the American way of life and connecting the heritage of their culture of origin.
Why Am I Writing About This?
Some of you have probably guessed my motivation here.
A photo was taken at the 1986 awards ceremony that shows Joe DiMaggio, Victor Borge, Anita Bryant (yes, that Anita Bryant), Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, and Donald Trump. I can’t post it here because the rights cost too much, but please take a look at it.
A conveniently cropped version of the photo is circulating as a meme. It usually includes only Ali, Parks, and Trump. The false text says essentially that Trump can’t be a racist because he received an Ellis Island award for “patriotism, tolerance, brotherhood, and diversity” along with Rosa Parks and Muhammed Ali. This is a lie. Another version says he received the award for “contributing to the conditions of inner-city black youths.” This is also fabricated. But in a very sad way, it might accidentally be true. It doesn’t specify that their conditions were improved, or what his “contributions” were, after all. In light of his stance and behavior with regard to the Central Park Five, it’s particularly pernicious.
But both of these representations and the other variants that group his award with Parks’ and Ali’s are completely made up. They are false. Trump received the award for being a real estate developer with a German granddaddy, with the understanding that he was bringing German culture to the U.S. while still living in the “American Way.” It’s a part of the public record.
That photo was well suited for deception because of the arrangement of the people. With the other three cropped out, it shows Trump standing with two Black Americans. It might even appear chummy if you don’t look too carefully. A closer look reveals that Trump shows little awareness of the people around him (except possibly to lean away from them). Instead, he preens at the camera. The cropped photo is also used to imply that Ali, Parks, and Trump were the only recipients of the award when they were actually 3 out of 80.
Nope, Trump was a well-known real estate developer whose grandfather was from Germany. That’s why he was one of the 80 honorees that year.
An Award for Being an Immigrant? For TRUMP?
Trump demonstrates nothing but hatred for immigrants unless they are white or otherwise benefit him personally. He loves to build walls and create travel bans on whatever countries he is currently scapegoating. He is happy to encourage harm and inhumane treatment of people who try to immigrate here, even children. And treat immigrants of color like dirt even when they become citizens.
There’s more irony. Trump doesn’t appear to qualify even for the award that he did get. He and his father hid their German roots for many years, with Fred Trump even telling people they were Swedish. This falsehood was included in Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, which was published the year after he won the award. The falsehood was even included in Fred Trump’s obituary in the New York Daily News in 1999. Lying about their ancestry doesn’t seem to be a great way to reinforce “the bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin.”
It Takes More than a Medal. Trump Is Demonstrably Racist.
What if Trump really did win some anti-racism civil rights award with some famous Black activists? It still wouldn’t matter! Receiving an award doesn’t somehow protect you from being a racist. Racism is judged by behavior, including verbal behavior.
We get evidence of Trump’s active, central-to-his-platform racism virtually every day. Remember the rapists from Mexico? His reference to “shithole” countries and desire for more immigrants from places like Norway? His predictable hostility to Black female reporters?
But we can look at the bigger picture, too. We can see that Confederate flags are common sights at his rallies, with no objections from him. We can read the research about the rise in hate crimes associated with his campaign and presidency:
President Trump’s election was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes across the United States, even when controlling for alternative explanations. Counties that voted for President Trump by the widest margins in the presidential election experienced the largest increases in reported hate crimes.(Edwards & Rushin, 2018)
Even if the study missed something and this trend is not related to his behavior, a normal president, a president with American values, would consider such an increase an emergency. He or she would take action. But not Trump. To him, black lives do not matter. He supports systemic racism and white supremacy.
In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security added white supremacy to its list of domestic terrorism threats. Has Trump ever spoken out against white supremacy terrorist groups in a convincing way? No, he only dog whistles to his base that there are some “fine people” among them and retweets white supremacists.
Trump’s behavior tells us he is a racist, that it is central to his platform and approach. Trying to “prove” that Trump is not a racist with a cropped photo and a lying caption is puerile and ridiculous.
But yet. We respond to those damn pictures and simplistic slogans. That’s the problem with memes. Even when clumsily made, they can say so much wrong stuff in such a small package that it takes a whole blog to unpack them.
Anyone can make a meme. They can crop a picture, cherry-pick information, or lie completely. We seem to be wired to believe things presented in that format. I check the information on every meme that catches my attention, whether I am prone to agree or disagree with it. And either way—I don’t share them unless they are purely for humor. The simplistic thinking they encourage is dangerous.
Sharing the Truth
I’m careful about arguing against stuff in such a way that it propagates bad info. Research and experience indicate that it is very hard to change someone’s mind, and that writing about myths can strengthen them. It’s a tricky business. So you notice that I don’t include the meme here, nor did I lead with the lies. I led with the most accurate information I could determine.
But you are going to run into that ridiculous meme. If no one speaks up, it slips into our collective culture. Those of us who have paid attention to Trump’s behavior at all will probably have that fishy feeling: something’s not right here. And we’ll decide whether it’s worth looking into.
Some of us may want to address the meta issue. Medals can be connected to behavior, but they are no substitute for observable behavior. But some of us might want to point out that the meme is yet another lie. By pushing back on falsehoods, we break up the appearance of unanimity on a topic. I offer this post with that in mind, for those who are interested in truth and who want to push back on lies and deception. And you never know. When you do make a statement based on evidence, some people lurking may be listening.
So here’s a review.
- Trump won an award in 1986, but it was for being a real estate developer with an immigrant grandfather.
- He didn’t win his award for the same reasons that Muhammed Ali and Rosa Parks won theirs.
- Eighty people won awards that year.
- Awards—for anything—do not speak as loud as behavior.
I thank Kevin Kruse for writing about this issue on Twitter. Be sure and check out his thread. I wouldn’t have known to look into this without his series of tweets. There are other “debunking” articles about the photo and Trump’s Ellis Island Medal of Honor. But Snopes only verifies that the photo (uncropped) is real. Politifact addresses the context better. But I wanted to dig a little deeper and present some resources from the time. It’s easy to show that the meme is a deliberate lie.
Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson
Edwards, G. S., & Rushin, S. (2018). The effect of President Trump’s election on hate crimes. Available at SSRN 3102652.