“In American society there is a lot of stigma to being viewed as racist, but much less stigma associated with doing and saying racist things.”
New York (Brussels Morning) During his October 15th Town Hall, Donald Trump repeated the phrase “I denounce white supremacy” twice. His tone was one of exasperation and, as usual, aggrievement, but he nonetheless said that sentence two times. The question this should raise for thoughtful observers is so what. Does Donald Trump repeating those four words that, for much of the political class seem to have magic powers, change anything? Does it change the reality that his administration separated Mexican children from their parents and put them in cages, welcomed bigots like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka into his administration, referred to Black Lives Matter as a “symbol of hate” or that his campaigns have consistently used anti-Semitic images and dog whistles? The answer to these questions is clearly no.
The reason this question emerged in both the first presidential debate, when Trump refused to make a clear denunciation of white supremacy, and the recent Town Hall reflects how most of the media still does not know how to talk about race. By acting as if with regards to racism there is some kind of verbal get out of jail free card that can be invoked by a simple sentence like “I denounce white supremacy,” too many in the media vastly underestimate the complexity and gravity of racism in America.
This line of questioning suggests that racism, and indeed white supremacy, is a fringe idea in America associated with cartoonishly bigoted and violent groups like the Proud Boys and similar militias and organizations; and that all a reasonable person has to do to prove they are not racist is denounce those extreme elements. This lets Trump and his racist supporters off too easily while radically misrepresenting and understating the enduring perniciousness of impact of racism in the US. The primary thing the media accomplished by insisting that Trump denounce white supremacy was not to reduce white supremacy or even to make the Trump administration less racist. Rather, the denunciation now gives Trump propaganda outlets like Fox News the ability to, in the waning days of this election, claim, disingenuously, that Trump is not racist.
In American society there is a lot of stigma to being viewed as racist, but much less stigma associated with doing and saying racist things. This is why Americans, whether serving in congress or walking their dog are so eager to claim they are not racists, when apologizing for acting in racist manners. If this sounds nonsensical, that is because it is, but it is precisely that nonsensical paradigm that is reflected when Donald Trump is asked to denounce white supremacy.
A much more useful way to discuss race with somebody like Donald Trump, whose record of racist statements and actions goes back for almost half a century, it to ask about his specific words and actions, rather than to ask him, in so many words, if he is a racist. For example, asking Trump why he referred to Mexicans as “rapists” or why he described the people in Charlottesville, Virginia who chanted “Jews will not replace us” as “very fine people. Similarly, it might be fruitful to ask him why in the early days of his career his family company did not rent to African Americans and why he has done nothing to address systemic racism in policing or been so critical of approaches to American history that confront the crime against humanity that was American slavery.
Sadly, Trump’s racist views are shared by millions of Americans, most of whom do not consider themselves racist either. The reason that so many millions of Americans can hold these two seemingly contradictory ideas is that the media and political class have defined what it means to be a racist in extreme and oversimplified terms-including using slurs, calling for violence against African Americans or other people of color or articulating views of genetic supremacy or inferiority of various groups. If racism is defined this way, it is not difficult for Americans, even racist ones, to view themselves as not being racist. It also leaves room for people like Donald Trump to deny being racist, and to have that denial seem meaningful.
To a great extent the strangest thing about Donald Trump’s racism is not the we have a racist president-Trump is certainly not the first American president about whom that could be said. Rather, it is extraordinary that almost four years into his term, we are still debating whether or not he is a racist and that we still think that if he denounces white supremacy that somehow makes him less of a racist.