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Racism is big, subtle, and messy. “Basket of deplorables” made it seem too simple.

Hillary Clinton’s comments missed the mark because they let too many people off the hook.

clinton in iowa
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There’s a conversation in America about race that, at its core, comes down to an important truth: There’s more to racism than racists.

It encompasses policies that, for decades, systematically excluded black Americans from building wealth through homeownership. It includes the implicit biases that shape the snap judgments we make about people of other races — and our judgments of their moral worth. It reveals that ostensibly “colorblind” policies can perpetuate existing racial inequalities.

The new conversation has taught America that you can’t identify where racism lies in society by separating people into baskets: racist “deplorables” in one basket, nonracist “hardworking Americans” in the other.

But when Hillary Clinton did just that at a private fundraiser Friday night (in comments that subsequently leaked to the press), many progressives immediately rose to her defense. They pointed to polls taken during the presidential primary, showing that Trump supporters were more likely than supporters of other candidates to view black Americans as inherently lazy and violent. They pointed out that more than half of Trump supporters tell pollsters that President Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim.

This was evidence, they argued, that what Clinton was saying was true: that half (at least) of Trump supporters really were racists. And if you objected to her choice of words (as many pundits and Republicans did), then you must just not believe that racists were deplorable people.

Trump supporters holding signs outside an event, reading "Save The Christians From Islamists" and "Stop Terrorism Close The Border."
“Save The Christians From Islamists”? Pretty deplorable sentiment.
Louise Waterbridge/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty

Here’s the thing, though: that’s a step backward from the new, more nuanced, bolder conversation about racism that America’s beginning to have.

There’s a satisfying moral clarity in being able to out-and-out call people deplorable for their racist views, but there simply isn’t a bright line between “racist” and “not racist.” There are quiet biases, and degrees of awareness, that even people who don’t support Donald Trump — even “hard-working Americans” — need to be aware of. And there is more to racism than what lies within people’s hearts.

All of that gets blissfully elided when you sort people into baskets, calling some of them “irredeemable” and others morally sound. It allows everyone to feel superior. And it’s especially painful to see the racial progressives who’ve done so much to bring nuance into the conversation — to keep white America, regardless of its ideology, in a state of productive discomfort — now leading the cheerleading charge.

Clinton was drawing a bright line between “deplorable” racists and “hard-working Americans”

Some conservative critics of the “basket of deplorables” comments have accused Clinton of calling some large swath of Americans “racist.” Ironically, that wasn’t her point at all: Her point was to protect even half of Trump supporters from being called “deplorable.”

The point of Clinton’s comments on Friday was to sort Trump supporters into two baskets: the racist, sexist “basket of deplorables,” and a second basket full of people who “don’t buy everything (Trump) says” but support him because they simply feel “desperate for change” and abandoned by the government. In other words, there was one basket of racists, attracted to Trump because of his racism, and another basket of nonracists attracted to him in spite of it.

When she apologized on Saturday, she tweaked the relative size of each basket but essentially kept the idea that Trump’s racist supporters could and should be separated from the “hard-working Americans who just don’t feel like the economy or our political system are working for them.”

What Clinton was doing, in other words, was drawing a bright line. She was saying that there are certain ideas that it is unacceptable to express in public debate, and that things like questioning the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge because of his heritage, or the open racism and anti-Semitism of the online “alt-right,” need to be shunned along with the people who espouse them.

David Duke
This is David Duke. He is definitely a racist.

There’s a certain appeal to that. American politics has had a long history of policing the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable ideas: When William F. Buckley essentially purged the John Birch Society from the conservative movement in the mid-20th century, he was doing something similar to what Clinton aspires to do now (with the crucial difference that Buckley was purging an element from his own ideological coalition).

Indeed, Clinton’s absolutely correct that the rise of Trump has made it easier to espouse overtly white-supremacist beliefs and still feel you’re within the political mainstream. For Pete’s sake, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, wasn’t even willing to call David Duke deplorable in an interview Monday.

White supremacists like Duke certainly don’t speak for all of Trump’s supporters. In that respect, Hillary Clinton is right. But defining “racism” as “agreeing with David Duke” is exactly the sort of definition of racism that many Americans, especially progressives, have been trying to move past.

The problem with the “white-hood” theory of racism

Let’s call it the “white-hood” theory of racism: The view that “racism” refers solely to an explicit belief in the inferiority of some races— and in deliberate, unambiguous discrimination against members of those races based on such a belief.

Here’s the way this theory plays out: to call a particular attitude or action or policy “racist”, the “white-hood” theory dictates, is saying that someone who held that attitude or performed that action or supported that policy was “a racist.” And to call someone “a racist” is to call him a bad person.

Since most Americans aren’t bad people, the theory goes, it therefore stands to reason that most Americans must not be racist.

“In modern America,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2013, “we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs.

“We believe this even when we are being racist.”

Very few people agree with David Duke’s racial theories. If people like David Duke were the only reason for the existence of racial inequities in America, racism really would be a problem of the past. The fact that it isn’t ought to be a clue that there’s more to racism than the “white-hood” theory indicates.

A lot of Americans hold negative, stereotypical attitudes toward black people: that they’re lazy, that they’re criminal, that they’re less intelligent. A lot of Americans support the idea of banning all Muslims from the US; a lot of Americans assume that any Latino is an immigrant, and any immigrant is illegal. A lot of Americans, encountering a black man on the street, immediately perceive him as a threat.

It’s really hard to talk about these things without using the word or concept of “racism.” But to people who believe in the white-hood theory, using the word “racism” to refer to things that aren’t the product of “the uniquely villainous and morally deformed” is manipulative and unfair. You’re playing the “race card.”

This is how “racist” — sometimes unironically called “the r-word” — got seen in many circles as a pejorative that itself ought to be unacceptable in public discourse.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage at a Donald Trump rally.
Don’t you dare call him a racist!
Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

When a state legislator called Maine Gov. Paul LePage racist for saying that, in his 95-percent-white state, 90 percent of drug dealers were black and Latino men, LePage got so mad he left a voicemail essentially threatening the legislator’s life.

LePage ultimately apologized for the voicemail. But he maintained the legislator had been the first one to cross a line. “Racist” is “the absolute worst, most vile thing you can call a person,” he said in one interview. In another, he said, “it’s like calling a black man the N word or a woman the C word.”

This is a ridiculous false equivalence. But it’s a false equivalence because the word “racist” isn’t supposed to just be a pejorative.

Good people can still hold racist views

In 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech on race in America in which he called his white grandmother a racist. Pearl-clutching ensued, because people assumed he was insulting his own grandmother. But his point is just as relevant eight years later: You can be a well-intentioned, redeemable person and still hold racist views.

Hardworking Americans can have deplorable beliefs. Hardworking Americans can prop up systems with deplorable outcomes. Even people who think they are trying not to be racist can do these things.

Do the 65 percent of Trump supporters who told Public Policy Polling in May that they believe Obama is a Muslim go in the irredeemable “basket of deplorables,” or are some of them hard-working Americans too?

What do you do with the downwardly mobile Americans who started out feeling that nobody cared about them, but have since gravitated toward an explanation for their suffering that pins the blame on black beneficiaries of “affirmative action” and refugees? What do you do with the Trump supporters who have taken the term “deplorables” as evidence that Hillary Clinton doesn’t care about them, not as a statement about their racial beliefs?

Donald Trump with supporters at a rally in Asheville, NC.
Which basket?
Brian Blanco/Getty

And if the 47 percent of Trump supporters who believe that black Americans are inherently more criminal than white Americans are all “irredeemable,” what does that say about the 32 percent of Clinton supporters who said the same?

Racism isn’t an infectious disease, in which a few carriers must be labeled and quarantined to protect the healthy masses. It’s a cancer with risk factors both embedded in our history and exacerbated by our environment, which means we have to be watchful in monitoring our own bodies and responses to make sure that we are catching it wherever it springs up.

But monitoring for racism only works if you accept the possibility that you’ll find something. If you think you’ve been inoculated against the disease of racism by being a good person — or by being something less than a white-hood, David Duke racist — you’re not exactly likely to look hard. And you’re likely to interpret anyone else’s assessment as a personal attack, not a neutral diagnosis of the problem.

Hillary Clinton isn’t responsible for fixing racism. That’s exactly why she has to model how people can fix it themselves.

Hillary Clinton addresses the National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in 2016. Win McNamee/Getty

Politically speaking, the “basket of deplorables” comment may well have helped Clinton. It may have turned a few people off, but let’s be real, very few voters didn’t already have an opinion about Hillary Clinton. And it galvanized her supporters — many of whom feel that she spoke truth to power by calling Trump supporters out for the deplorable racists they were.

For Clinton, that might be justification enough. For the progressives who support her, it might not be — but maybe their justification is that the policies of a Clinton administration would do a lot more to alleviate existing racial inequalities, and resist the creation of new ones, than a Trump administration would.

But the government can’t singlehandedly dismantle racism. Racism in America is a constellation of attitudes, practices, and policies. The recent turn away from “white-hood” racism has allowed Americans to see racism more clearly both at the macro scale — in policies like redlining and mass incarceration — and the micro scale: with the implicit biases held by many people of all colors and ideological stripes.

To address both of those — particularly the latter — people will need to continue to get more comfortable talking about race and racism with honesty and compassion. That means moving past the idea that “racist” is a synonym for “deplorable.”

For better or worse, politicians have a great deal of influence in setting the terms of public debate. Clinton was trying to use that influence to draw a bright line and exclude extreme viewpoints. But that power also gives her the responsibility to model how to talk about race and racism in a productive way — a responsibility progressives tend to understand very well.