clock menu more-arrow no yes

If Donald Trump becomes the face of American racism, racism wins

Focusing on individual bigotry is actually a conservative way to think about things.

Members of the NGO Code Pink stage a protest against Donald Trump’s proposed 'total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States' in December 2016.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

When Donald Trump declared in June that Federal district court judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage disqualified the Indiana native from adjudicating a case against Trump University, even Republicans were quick to condemn the statement.

“Public Service Announcement: Saying someone can't do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of racism,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) tweeted. House Speaker Paul Ryan called the remark "the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

It was tough to think of another instance in recent, pre-Trump memory (save for maybe the 2015 mass murder at a black church by a self-proclaimed white supremacist) that had elicited such broad agreement — including by politicians on the right, a notoriously tough crowd to convince that racism shapes American life in any way — that “the R-word” solidly applied.

The word and accompanying criticism would continue to fit throughout the campaign, thanks to Trump’s performance of the role of bigoted villain in a way that was almost comically explicit. On the one hand, this resonated with many white voters who perhaps heard in his “straight talk” a vision of the racial hierarchy that would need to be restored to “Make America Great Again” in their minds. But it also had another effect: It unified many people of all races and political persuasions in shared disgust over his bold enthusiasm for discrimination and wild deployment of stereotypes.

When Trump proposed a “Muslim ban” and surveillance of mosques, when he labeled Mexican immigrants “rapists,” and again when he revealed how little he thought of black people by dismissing “the African Americans” as “inner city” dwellers with “nothing to lose,” he solidified the scorn.

He was bigotry personified, speaking plainly enough that anyone even slightly inclined to do so could identify and condemn his ideas as wrong, unfair, unconstitutional, intolerant, and just plain mean. And in a country where there’s almost never anything near agreement that the word “racist” applies, suddenly there was.

In one sense, it’s been heartening to see such a broad swath of citizens declare that Trump’s rhetoric among minorities offends their sensibilities. And it’s tempting to fantasize that a Trump defeat would be a powerful symbolic blow to racism. But that’s not true.

Even if Trump loses the presidency, the role he has won in the collective American imagination — as the ultimate embodiment of racism — means he also stands to be the ultimate scapegoat and distraction.

If we’re not careful, our fixation on him could have the unintended side effect of reaffirming a longstanding American myth: that the face of racism is a red-faced, loudmouthed, hate-driven bully who says in plain language that people who aren’t white are bad. That this is the “literal definition” of racism, and therefore the very worst of it. Meanwhile, just outside the range of our attention and disgust, the most harmful forms and effects of racism will continue — poorly understood, rarely talked about, regularly denied, and thriving.

Trump delivered an in-your-face brand of personal racism that few could deny

Demonstrators gather in front of the newly opened Trump International Hotel to protest against Trump’s racist, sexist and anti-immigration positions September 12, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even among journalists, who tend to treat allegations of racism delicately and as a matter of perception versus fact, Trump’s candidacy has created some unusual exceptions.

BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith told his staff in a December 2015 memo that it was acceptable for them to call Trump a racist as a fact on social media.

The Huffington Post began adding an unprecedented editor’s note to tell readers that “Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims.”

All that was even before Trump’s began using the transparently coded term “inner city” interchangeably with “African Americans” (or rather, “the African Americans,” in his unique parlance). It was before he said he wanted to bring back Stop and Frisk — the New York City policing program that a judge expressly held discriminated against black and Latino residents, in violation of their constitutional rights. It was before the Ku Klux Klan effectively endorsed him in a front-page article of its official newspaper, praising his “Make America Great Again” slogan as an important call to prevent “white genocide” in an increasingly racially diverse country. It was even before polls confirmed what anyone could have guessed: that most of his supporters were deeply hostile toward Muslims and nonwhites.

With each of these developments, the consensus grew. Trump didn’t just have a decades-long history of allegations of discrimination against him, he was also still actively spreading bigotry. He was unfair, he was unkind, and he didn’t make any effort to hide his contempt: He exhibited the easy-to-identify, personal expression of ideas that we like to think run counter to our national values.

Even those in Trump’s party had conceded that the candidate had tapped into some of the worst instincts of would-be voters. The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein warned last year that a win by someone with Trump’s views would validate the — in his view misguided — image liberals have of Republicans “being more about bombast and white resentment than substance and principles.” Two months later, he wrote, “I don’t want Republicanism that’s served with an entree of racism and sexism.” Others, in awkward cable news exchanges, painstakingly refused to answer journalists’ questions about Trump’s racism, not politically inclined to confirm it but seemingly unable to deny it either.

The scorn was mainstream, and speaking out against it was too. In one election-themed online shop, one can even purchase a T-shirt, sweatshirt, mug, or phone case emblazoned with the sentence “Donald Trump’s racism is un-American.” In one sense, this nearly unprecedented moment of agreement was deeply satisfying. I wrote in April that it was refreshing to see racism discussed so broadly as fact rather than an allegation, a he said/she said debate, a sensitive subject about which reasonable minds could disagree.

In a world where the dreaded “R-word” is usually treated as though it’s a slur on its own, there was something hopeful about this moment of shared disgust over high-profile bigotry.

But most racism doesn’t look or sound like Trump — it never has

But this unifying moment for some also has a dark side. It has emphasized the tiny category of words and actions that Americans can agree are racist — truly, a minuscule, unusual subset of the ways in which stubborn bias, hate, and white supremacy shape the country. If Trump’s remarks and the views expressed by many of his supporters indeed reflect “textbook” racism, that text is a remedial one.

The tendency to focus on outrageous, clear acts of bigotry as the only, or worst, form of racism has roots much deeper than this election cycle. And it’s not just Republican politicians who think about things in such a myopic way. There’s a good chance that a randomly selected American stopped on the street and asked to define the term would offer up something like Merriam-Webster’s definition (“Poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race)” or Google’s (“the belief that some races of people are better than others”).

The inclination to use such a “simple” definition is easy to understand. But there’s just one big problem: Racism isn’t simple. Deen Freelon, an associate professor of communications at American University, says clinging to an elementary conception of racism that misses the complicated ways race pervades American life helps blur our understanding of the issue.

For example, Freelon says, the language used in many public debates about race tends to obscure differences between systemic racism (which is something people of color in this country suffer and whites don’t) and personal animus or bigotry (which anyone, of any color, can harbor), and the link between the two (which changes the meaning of an expression of personal animus depending on whom it’s coming from).

“To debate and condemn racism with some level of understanding, we’d need to, at a minimum, distinguish between these things,” Freelon says.

Rinku Sen, the president and executive director of Race Forward, an organization whose mission is to advance racial justice, makes spreading the word to the public about that complexity a key part of her work. “We are trying to address the fact that most Americans define racism in a very narrow way. They mostly define it as individual, intentional, and overt,” she says. To many, “real” racism involves rare, dramatic extremes.

“In their minds,” she says, “the discriminatory actor is an individual, who is consciously trying to keep somebody else down out of their malicious intention and hatred of that other kind of person, and who acts that out in a very obvious way, by hanging a noose on your door or beating you up while yelling racial slurs.”

The origins of popular thinking about the “textbook” definition of racism aren’t a mystery, says Sen. They hew closely to the bulk of anti-discrimination laws, which, even though they make some mention of impact, were written to punish overt, individual acts. Even the way we talk about the civil rights movement and associated cultural heroes (think separate water fountains for black and white people and Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus) reinforces the idea that real American racism is explicit discrimination based on color.

The message between the lines: All other forms are softer, less harmful, or less real. We handle them as allegations and put “the R-word” in scare quotes to demonstrate that they don’t rise to a level that we are sure we find truly unacceptable.

This thinking can do us a disservice, according to Freelon. He says it “focuses our attention more on communication than on policy, systemic traditions, and law” — things that may have disparate racial impact and may be much more harmful than a few words.

These are disparities like the evidence of persistent racial discrimination in employment, housing, and credit markets, education (in terms of both resource inequality and disproportionate school discipline), policing, courts, and medicine. In each of these areas, there’s abundant evidence of the way race — and, yes, racism — powerfully and tragically shape daily life.

But the studies proving these things lack the sensational quality that tends to accompany revelations about the bigoted views of high-profile Americans. When comedian Michael Richards, chef Paula Deen, Hulk Hogan, and Donald Trump are caught expressing — or are bold enough to publicly share — the way they feel about nonwhite people, it captures headlines. Meanwhile, the daily actions and inactions that keep inequality going are status quo and, to many, boring.

Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, says this misguided attention is especially insidious in politics, where it dates back to the 1970s.

“The move to limit ‘racism’ to personal bigotry comes from conservative backlash to the civil rights movement,” he says. “Conservatives responded to all of these more nuanced understandings of racism by saying, ‘Actually, racism is just personal bigotry, and unless you can identify something personally bigoted, racism doesn’t exist.’ That was a conservative move that’s allowed them to say, ‘That’s okay, that’s not racism, that’s just racial imbalance.’”

He says white liberals have often fallen into this trap, focusing on unequal outcomes rather than their causes, under a “disparity model” approach to racism, which barely scratches the surface: “You look at the Senate: white faces. You look at who’s poor: disproportionately black and brown faces. That is important; that’s good to notice. But the more important question is why.”

Failure to answer leaves the door open for reasoning that actually reinforces racism, López says. “Conservatives, they also notice the benefits and burdens are unequally distributed, but their answer to ‘Why?’ is something like, ‘Some people have a culture that values work, and some don’t.’ Answering the ‘why’ in a useful way requires an analysis of structural inequality — not just bad actors.”

What we miss when we’re fixated on Trump’s brand of racism: almost everything

Trump holds a campaign rally at the National Western Complex November 5, 2016, in Denver.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Racism shows up mostly in ways that aren’t packaged for headline-grabbing stump speeches by a former reality television star — ways that are tough to get Americans to agree there is a problem, despite their devastating effects.

Just one example of those effects: the rise of militarization in school discipline, which Sen says is characterized by the presence of police officers, metal detectors, and high rates of punishment fueled by zero-tolerance policies. “We can see that these are applied way disproportionately to kids of color, and that there are almost no stories about white kindergarteners having a tantrum at school and having the police called,” she explains. “The rule doesn’t say, ‘Call the police if you’re afraid of your black kindergartner,’ but that’s the way it’s applied.”

Another consequence of classifying old-school, textbook racism as the truest form of racism is that it can make unconscious or implicit bias seem irrelevant. This is when “the prejudiced associations you make very rapidly in your brain [occur] so rapidly that you’re not even aware you’re making them,” Sen says.

While these biases don’t require bad intentions, they do have concrete consequences. For example, Race Forward found that hiring data from a large public agency in a major city demonstrated that people of color needed much higher qualifications than the average white applicant to be hired.

But when people understand racism as limited to overt, “textbook,” Trump-style expressions, it can make that discrepancy hard to understand and criticize. After all, no one involved in hiring said aloud that nonwhite people needed fancier degrees to earn an interview. “It makes the burden of proving that racism exists much higher. That trickles down through our courts, corporations, and our schools,” says Sen. The result: The burden for people of color to prove discrimination in a way that’s taken seriously can be impossibly high.

And it’s worth noting that most political efforts to uphold policies that keep structural racism intact are typically more polite and less transparent than the things Trump says. Haney López’s book focuses on elected officials’ ability to tap into bias without being explicit about it, all to gain support for what he calls “regressive policies,” which, ironically, hurt working-class white people as much as people of color. His book explains how phrases from “Sharia law” to “forced busing” to “states’ rights” have historically allowed politicians to send messages to encourage upholding racist policies while avoiding the kind of criticism that Trump has faced.

“This sort of coded speech operates on two levels,” Haney López says. “It triggers racial anxiety, and it allows plausible deniability by crafting language that lets the speaker deny that he’s even thinking about race.”

The risk of focusing so hard on Trump’s bold “textbook” racism can make coded political speech seem harmless by comparison. “Anything else that might have that effect — coded language, deployment of stereotypes — becomes unrecognizable as racism,” says Sen.

In public life, this could be handy for those who might want to protect themselves from the scrutiny that Trump has faced despite having ideologies similar to his. It’s a tactic that’s long existed, and could be even more easily deployed in a world where Americans agree that Trump is the real bad guy.

“You find the most extreme possible viewpoint, and say, ‘That’s racist.’ Then everything else is not, as long as they don’t use a slur or explicitly claim that one is superior to another,’’ Freelon says. “It is a dynamic we see frequently because it allows people to let themselves off the hook — that person is racist, and therefore I’m not.”

It’s chilling to think about a future where once-inappropriate political statements may not even register on the American racism radar, going even more undetected than they have in the past, simply because the words seem so innocuous in comparison with Trump’s.

Trump’s dangerous possible legacy: over-obsession with individual bigotry and more confusion of how racism actually works

Trump holds a campaign rally in the Sun Country Airlines Hangar at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport November 6, 2016, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It’s fine to acknowledge that Trump is a personal bigot, that his thinking is retrograde, and that many of his supporters share his outlook. The problem, says Haney López, is that it too often goes hand in hand with another, perhaps less conscious thought: not discussing “what’s happening here in terms of strategy, in terms of structure, in terms of unconscious bias.”

He said we heard some of this higher-level discussion when Clinton talked in the debates about the society-wide impact of implicit racial bias. But her analysis has struggled to grab the public’s attention this campaign season, especially in comparison with some of Trump’s most controversial statements. That’s understandable: Shockingly bold expressions of bigotry are sexier than the latest sociological insights. But it’s also a reminder of how easy it is for the public to be distracted by individual expressions of racist sentiments.

“By deploying the focus that suggests the bad guys are Trump, and these alt-right people or these neo-Nazis, it makes it harder to talk about more sophisticated manifestations of racism,” says Leah Wright Rigueur, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.

In her view, it doesn’t matter whether Trump wins or loses. Allowing him to be the poster boy for bigotry serves to even further simplify Americans’ already inadequate thinking about race and racism. “I’m not too optimistic about people having the ability to address this problem if they’re insisting it’s new and unheard of. That’s what the danger of Trumpism is,” she said. “I’ve been surprised by how reluctant people were to tie him into a much larger story.”

Haney López agrees that even among Trump’s biggest critics, failure to see how he fits into the bigger picture of American racism is troubling.

“Trump has been so egregious that a lot of white liberals can see the racism in his speech, but rather than understand it as part of a long tradition, the risk is that they’re going to understand it as an exceptional expression of bigotry either on behalf of himself or on the part of backward supporters. The risk is that people talk about the Trump phenomenon exclusively in terms of bigotry; then they’ll dismiss it because we see bigotry as backward and morally troubling,” he said.

In his estimation, the danger, win or lose, “is that we frame Trump in terms of bigotry, and focusing on bigotry is actually a very conservative way to think about racism.”

In other words, thinking of racism as a set of bad personal actions instead of systemic barriers leaves room for ideas like Trump’s to keep quietly shaping the country in ways that existed long before him. And they could become even quieter and yet more powerful than he could ever be.