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A woman who called Michelle Obama an ape has her job back. This is part of a pattern.

The giant, national, post-election shrug over explicit racism.

US First Lady Michelle Obama helps to sort donated toys for the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Campaign at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, DC, December 7, 2016.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Pamela Ramsey Taylor, the director of a Clay County, West Virginia, nonprofit who was removed from her post after she called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels” in a November Facebook post, will be back on the job December 23, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Monday.

That’s right, she wasn’t fired by the Clay County Development Corp. Though the initial headlines claimed she “lost her job,” she was just temporarily suspended. While Clay County Mayor Beverly Whaling stepped down permanently after commenting that Taylor’s racist Facebook post, “just made my day,” Taylor will return to work by Christmas.

There are of course practical concerns about having someone so comfortable with blatant racial attacks on the payroll (and yes, comparing a black person to an ape is a classic attack). Namely, how will someone with Taylor’s outlook and apparent lack of judgment or compassion interact with the public? In light of Taylor’s comments, the commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services warned that any discrimination against customers could put the commission’s state funding at risk, according to the Gazette-Mail.

But there’s a larger, more symbolic, concern about the light consequence Taylor faced, too. The story can be seen as one data point in a growing list of recent examples in which explicit racism appears to be getting a pass, a platform, or even a reward in contexts where it once seemed safe to assume that this would be out of the question.

The developing mainstream reaction to explicit racism: “That’s not very nice, but … shrug”

Taylor is just one person with one job. In the grand scheme of things, her reinstatement is inconsequential. But it’s more distressing when considered as part of a trend: Americans are becoming more blatant, bold, and shameless about their racism — and they’re getting away with it. Displays of hate, white supremacy, and bigotry that were once safe to assume were out of bounds in many contexts have turned out not to be.

It’s not tough to see where this shift in attitude might have come from. Donald Trump expressed unbridled enthusiasm for discrimination against Mexican Americans, Muslims, and black people. Even fellow Republican Paul Ryan accused him of making “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Yet he suffered no measurable consequences. He won the election, delivering a clear message: Politicians don’t even need to bother with hiding their racist appeals in dog whistles anymore. He went on to appoint Steve Bannon, whose primary professional accomplishment was mainstreaming white nationalism at the helm of Breitbart News. He selected Jeff Sessions, who, in 1986, was deemed too racist to be a federal judge. Today, he’s the next likely head of the Department of Justice.

An early, alarming sign of the trickle-down effect of this messaging — that bigotry isn’t unacceptable, or something to be ashamed of and conceal — was its presence in schools: A November 28 report revealed that, in the weeks after the election, four in 10 teachers surveyed by the Southern Poverty Law Center said they had heard derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, and immigrants and comments toward people based on gender or sexual orientation.

Just this week, the LA Times published two letters that defended, and treated lightly, World War II internment of Japanese Americans, inspiring a backlash from readers who were shocked that the comments hadn’t been dismissed out hand as ridiculous defenses of a barbaric violation of civil liberties.

The Times apologized in a Monday column, saying the letters didn’t meet the standards of “intelligent, fact-based opinions” — but not after explaining that the editor who selected them did so because she thought they would be “provocative.”

In a similar decision to put racist views on display in the name of healthy debate, Tomi Lahren enjoyed a platform on The Daily Show early this month. The online commentator who’s been dubbed the “Queen of the alt-right” is a darling of white nationalist racist group thanks to her vitriolic criticism of civil rights protests like Colin Kaepernick’s. She’s known for echoing their preoccupation with white victimization in remarks like, “There can’t be a group of people in this country who are blamed for the ills of minority communities and then not allowed to speak or defend themselves.”

Sure, host Trevor Noah disagreed strongly with her opinions, and delighted many viewers with his sharp retorts. But critics argued that the civil exchange (not to mention the cupcakes the Daily Show team sent to her afterward) legitimized Lahren in a way that represented a disturbing shift toward placing beliefs about white superiority and black inferiority in the realm of reasonable differences of opinion.

Incidents like these have combined to send a message to nonwhite people that becomes louder and clearer each day: “It’s not that your race definitely makes you worth less, but the question is definitely up for discussion.”

Why the mainstreaming of blatant racism matters

It’s no secret at all that there are plenty of people like Taylor in this county and that many Americans have long held racist beliefs and attitudes, But the one small check against that is that, for the past few decades at least, there’s been a broad consensus that confessing racist beliefs (that a person’s racial identity makes them dangerous, ugly, unintelligent, or less deserving of rights and opportunities, for example) is beyond the pale: too backward to seriously engage with and too atrocious express in public without serious consequences.

Not anymore.

The problem with this shift isn’t just that racism is offensive or hurtful. It’s that the beliefs that are creeping their way into the realm of fine-to-admit-in-public acceptability are the same ones that fuel real-life harm to nonwhite people: think racialized police violence, housing discrimination, and life-ruining discriminatory discipline by teachers.

When they’re rewarded (with the keys to the White House), legitimized (as one side of a civil debate on a talk show), or minimized (with a lighter than expected punishment like Taylor’s), it’s a huge win for people who once resented the checks “political correctness” placed on their bigotry and succeeded in creating societal squeamishness around using the “r-word” to identify and condemn racism. And it’s a chilling development for those who see the social norms and lines in the sand that once provided them with a small modicum of dignity and protection fading away.

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