The debate over whether racism made Donald Trump president is forcing educated America to grapple with something we are taught is inapplicable when it comes to racism: degree. Typically, the closest we come to acknowledging that racism is not a starkly binary matter is to say that racism “plays a part” in, for example, how whites view Barack Obama — but only meaning “the main part,” and the only one worthy of extended discussion.
But that kind of thinking doesn’t work this time, and a failure to acknowledge it will “play a part” in making catastrophes like this election keep happening. Make no mistake; it was a catastrophe indeed. Donald Trump is an incurious, ignorant, mean-spirited, impulsive person, whose blithe, ugly embrace of sexist and racist rhetoric has established a new, adventurous attitude among those who share his troglodytic views on human groups. I share the feeling of many that his election just couldn’t have been quite real, that just possibly, and hopefully, we fell into some kind of realm behind the looking glass or are having a bad dream. I remain numb.
And yet — yes, and yet — it won’t do to allow a mental shorthand that the people who voted for this man are a bunch of racists, à la pieces like this one, titled “Farewell, America,” by the writer Neal Gabler. “Who knew,” Gabler writes breathlessly, “that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans?”
The problem of extrapolating from an offensive minority
Yes, a faction among Trump’s voters — the people with the ugly signs and T-shirts and chants — are racists. But we, who so confidently despise stereotyping, cannot now decide that those newsworthy people represent all, or even most, of the people who pulled the lever for Trump.
Yes, in the wake of Trump’s election, hooligans nationwide are pulling disgusting racist pranks against black, Latino, and Muslim persons — spray-painting slogans or swastikas, for example — feeling enabled by Trump’s rhetoric. But again, if it’s wrong for people to make any assumptions about black people based on the behavior of a few, or even more than a few, then we cannot indulge the habit of deciding that these clueless teenagers and barflies represent the mass of people who voted Trump after dropping off their kids at school.
Rather, the a-holes represent what Will Saletan has usefully called a couple of “baskets” out of five among the Trump voter palette. The case that these people represent the views of the typical Trump voter gets weaker by the day. There was no “whitelash” — fewer whites voted for Trump than for Mitt Romney. And let us not forget how very many of these supposed bigots voted for Obama.
Then they voted for Trump, though — and many can’t imagine why they would have done so given how revolting Trump’s behavior has been. They must have, we suppose, held their noses when voting for Obama but then expressed their true colors when voting for Trump. However, there is a more humane interpretation here, and equally plausible: They were holding their noses voting for Trump.
When a politician’s racism isn’t a deal breaker
Namely, what we have seen is that for a great many voters, Trump’s racism and sexism may have been less than ideal, but they weren’t deal breakers in comparison to other concerns. That is, racism and sexism weren’t a priority to them as much as they are to others.
Is such a person a racist? A mom in central Pennsylvania is attracted to Trump’s promise of change. She and her family may have had problems with employment in the wake of deindustrialization; or, she may see this problem elsewhere and worry about it; or she may be spooked by episodes like ones in San Bernardino and Orlando. “This guy seems really different. Yes, he says tacky stuff about Latinos, black people, and women, but so do a lot of people and, you know, in the end I’m not sure I care whether I’d want him around my daughter. I don’t have to have dinner with him. I wish these jerks wouldn’t show up at his rallies, but I’m not like them. And really, people get too upset these days about words anyway.”
Now, according to a certain script, that person qualifies as a bigot, as someone you’d shudder to have at your Thanksgiving table, as someone whose thinking is the cognitive equivalent of the noxious fume. A likely argument would be that Republican voters like this one test as more likely to agree with statements like, “blacks could be just as well off as whites if they tried harder.”
However, I sense that this is the script of only a certain few, whose representation thins quickly with distance from college towns. Is everyone who thinks black America could benefit from more of a sense of self-empowerment a bigot? More than a few black people harbor the same sentiment and would be hard to classify as racists, as would the roughly one in five Latino voters who went for Trump
Certainly one might be dismayed, nevertheless, that for so many of Trump’s voters, racism and sexism aren’t decisive issues. However, in our post-civil rights era we can lose sight of what a miracle the destruction of institutionalized segregation was, and what a radical, ambitious, and possibly quixotic goal it has been since to hope that we would make all Americans actively revile all bias the way they revile pedophilia. That’s a tall order.
One might suppose, and be called “conservative” in the process, despite what John Locke would have readily understood, that the policing of human sentiment can only have so much effect.
Academics have been steadily expanding the group of people categorized as “racists”
In a book (Race Experts) that got lost amidst the previous American tragedy of Trumpian proportion, 9/11, historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn noted how starting in the late 1960s, “the desired goal was no longer civic equality and participation, but individual psychic well-being.” Starting then, well-meaning black psychologist Price Cobbs pioneered “encounter sessions” seeking to purge whites of even subtle racist bias — here’s a peek at one of these, circa 1970:
WHITE WOMAN: I don’t relate towards you, towards color or anything else, I relate towards every single person here as an individual.
COBBS: You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re lying!
WHITE WOMAN: Why?
COBBS: If I would say “You look like a little boy to me, I just don’t see anything” you’d say I was crazy because you’re a woman … if I could neutralize you in some way this is exactly what white folks do to black folks.
Some will cheer at that sequence, enjoying seeing the white lady squirm as her inner “racist” is revealed. The line of descent is clear from these sessions to today’s quest to inculcate whites into an awareness of their “privilege” (amidst stipulations that their white opinions don’t matter: “IT’S – NOT – ABOUT – YOU” is common mantra). Also hard to miss is a certain resemblance to indoctrination rhetoric of the past amidst movements like Stalinism that we now securely condemn as having gone off track.
Let’s pull the camera back Did these antiracist encounter sessions work? Apparently not. There may be limits to how thoroughly one can purge a vast society of even subliminal bias. Could we ever make all, or even almost all, Americans think of those ills as unquestioned, absolute deal breakers?
But do I really know? Do I really get it? I sometimes hear that I just don't how much racism is "out there." It can be bemusing, as a black American, to savor these doses of "whitesplaining" about how racism is not always overt, the subtext being that I'm such an overeducated hothouse flower that I don't know what's "really goin' down." But I could write — and in fact have written — reams about the racist bias I have seen, gleaned, and experienced in my life and that of others. My claim here is specific: Is what got Trump elected something responsible people should be calling, specifically, “racist”?
Personalizing the argument
Some of my actual “knowing” sheds at least some light on the answer to that question. Earlier in my life, I was close for a long time to a number of people of the "whites out there" category: suburban and exurban whites of modest education, culturally what one might call a little bit "country," some financially just making ends meet. Did racism inflect some of their views? Sure, a bit. Most of them would not have passed the New Yorker reader’s antiracism purity test, and only rigorous and long-term Socratic dialogue could have changed that.
However, were they "racists" in any sense that would justify affixing such a contemptuous label upon someone trying their best in this vale of tears called life? Certainly not. They did not wish it were still 1950. Plenty of them, and people in their family, were dating or married to people of color. And it wasn't, and never had been, an issue.
Because of geography and time, I don't know these people well anymore, but I am quite sure of two things. One is that some of them voted for Trump. The second is that they did not think of Barack Obama as "that nigger in the White House," not even "on some level" or "intersectionally." They were almost certainly toasting with champagne that September night in 2008 as I was. If they voted for Trump this time, it was a matter of their priorities, not hating black people.
Now, after all of this, I have heard many people of color, women, and LGBTQ people this week say that it still dismays them that such voters don’t care about them. And there are certainly gloomy issues at hand here in terms of how far people’s circle of empathy extends and whether or not we can change that.
Yet it’s hard to miss that for some, a claim that Trump’s victory was not due to “racism” is something to resist, unwelcome — as if some people want half of the country’s voters to have revealed themselves as morally backward bigots. But one could only want such a thing out of a quest to affirm one’s own morality.
There is no better recipe for driving Mr. and Mrs. “Out There” to vote Trump into a second four years than having them watch smart people on television calling them racists 24/7. I would suggest that just as Americans should always check themselves for bias, and they should, those tempted to assail practically every second American voter in 2016 as a bigot ought check themselves for self-congratulation.
John McWhorter, a linguist, is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally).