Trump has proven himself a pretty despicable human being, but when we blanket-charge him with racism we join with him in his insufficiently considered blather.
Trump is known for insults. To be fair, so was Winston Churchill, but the difference is between some of the greatest English zingers of recorded history and the sad equivalent of playground bully mouthing off. “Not nice,” “dopey,” “unfair,” “a joke,” “a real dummy,” “overrated,” and one of his favorites, “loser,” show up again and again on Trump’s Twitter feed. They’re his go-to favorites, blown off at the least sense of competition or loss of ego. Thinking people, whatever their party lines, dislike this unthinking, imprecise brazenness (Josh talks about what people do like about this kind of talk here). But in our dislike for Trump (or any politician) do we sometimes also speak with (fatal) imprecision?
We have got a thing against racism in this country. “Racist” is almost the most serious charge there is, in certain prominent circles at least. Until the election, I thought that making multiple comments that were perceived as racist or misogynistic was automatic political suicide. (For most politicians, I’m still confident that it would be. I suppose Trump avoided his political demise by appealing to a different audience than most politicians.)
There is a scary paradox, too: not only is “racist” nearly the most damning charge you can throw at someone [i], it’s also plastered (with the slightest invitation) willy-nilly onto all kinds of other character flaws and errors in judgment. When was the last time you read an article that called someone racist AND defined what they meant by the term? Anytime we use a shared term without a clear definition, we talk past each other (like when Brian and Dia talk about “Expectations for Anniversary Gifts,” uh oh!): in this case, we often place various differing ideologies and sensibilities under the blanket condemnation entailed by the term “racist.” This inexactness, which happens all the time in our public discourse, is especially disturbing here because the condemnation is so severe. Some people think racism should be a capital crime …whatever it is.
Trump has deservedly earned many negative descriptions, but when we call Trump racist, are we, Trump-like, using our favorite epithet without pausing to check that it’s based in fact? “NOOOOO!” you howl, “have you been ASLEEP for 18 months? Did you SEE what he said about Mexicans? Or Muslims? Or minorities in Chicago?” OKOKOK I get it. But hold on just a few more minutes: let’s think through what racism really means, and decide if he’s guilty or not.
What is “racist”?
1) Race matters.
One type of “racism” (so called) is the opinion that race matters at all. If that is racist, I’m afraid I am obliged to be racist. Race does matter. All the anger and even bloodshed over police brutality against black men and the persistence of racial tensions show clearly that race does matter. Anyone in favor of affirmative action must in consistency acknowledge the fact. The only maintainable position is that it shouldn’t matter. I am afraid that when we fail to recognize the difference between the opinion that race does matter and the opinion that race should matter, we tend to label as racist the people who, without the slightest enmity, allow themselves to acknowledge the fact that race does play a role in gang involvement, socioeconomic status, and criminality – or at least allow themselves to recognize these facts without adding immediately some sort of expression of righteous indignation. Bruce Levenson [ii] was, in part, a victim of this failure to discriminate between two different kinds of things. A purely descriptive approach that reckons up the history and psychology underlying these facts and refrains from taking a moral stance of blame and condemnation towards somebody or other, is all but unthinkable. The indignation is politically indispensable (or so I thought pre-Trump – and for the most part, still think).
2) Race should matter.
A second type of “racism” (so called) is the view that race should matter. But if this is “racist,” I must confess myself again a racist, because the opinion that race should not ever matter seems to me only slightly more tenable than the opinion that race doesn’t matter. Are we willing to say that a black man is wrong for considering his African heritage to be an important part of his identity? Or that I am wrong for considering the fact of my royal European roots (descended from Norman kings on the Sabey side and Danish royalty on the Blair side) a cool piece of my family heritage? Or for feeling that, when I landed in England for the first time, I had reached one of my homelands, and for tearing up as I walked through Westminster Abbey and saw the final resting place of some of the greatest British men and women who have ever lived–in part, because I felt that this was my history? [iii] I have been to China as well, and the experience was perhaps even more powerful, but for very different reasons. Absent was the sense of belonging to the histories and the spaces through which I was moving.
Now there is an extreme version of this second type of racism: the view that race should alwaysmatter. This views or views approaching it underlie the notion that there should be fundamental legal distinctions between black people and white people–that they should always or usuallybe treated differently, and that the law should enforce such discrimination. This view is (of course) wrong.
In our eagerness to distance ourselves from this old-fashioned view of some of our great grandparents, we seem to want to deny that race should ever matter. And that seems to me almost as silly as the view that it should always matter. The fact is, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t; and sometimes is should and sometimes it shouldn’t. When and why it does or should are questions worth asking. But too often we don’t ask them. We don’t question. Instead, many of us are too willing to jump straight on the condemnation bandwagon at the slightest acknowledgement that race does or should matter.
3) One race is fundamentally superior to another.
A third variety of “racism” (so called) is the view that one particular race is fundamentally and essentially superior to another. This view has been used to justify slavery, death camps, and colonialism, and we are right in rejecting it. But the reason we are right is simply that the evidence does not support this position. [iv]
Unless I am much mistaken, this third variety of racism has been held by the vast majority of all races historically. As human cultures, we have an unfortunate tendency towards self-superiority. Now, as I said, I think we are right to reject this type of racism. But not correct in our moral outrage. Our moral outrage is correctly directed against cruelty and violence and hatred and cultural self justification regarding evil practices. Our moral outrage is correctly directed against those who held this opinion not because they considered the evidence but because it was socially expedient to hold it. Our moral outrage is correctly directed against the disingenuous and unrighteous ways in which this opinion was promoted, including the patent violation of First Amendment rights before the Civil War. Our moral outrage is correctly directed against the concerted deprivation of an entire race of people of their cultural heritage and their disenfranchisement within the nation that had kidnapped them. Indeed, just about everything else about slavery is a correct target of our moral indignation, but genuine opinions must stand or fall on the strength of their supporting arguments and on nothing else. To the degree that people held or hold such opinions in good faith and on the evidence, they are to be condemned, if at all, only for their intellectual carelessness.
Now, admittedly, it is difficult to imagine anyone today holding such an opinion in good faith and on the evidence. Today, we are much less aware of the kinds of evidence that justified people in such opinions previously, and we are much more aware of the kinds of evidence that persuaded most modern people that racism is incorrect as an ideology. And, frankly, the evidence is simply, in my view, much stronger in favor of the modern view.
4) Members of my race are to be favored.
A fourth kind of “racism” (so called) is the sense that one belongs to a certain race, and that other members of the race are to be preferred as friends or as prospective marriage partners, etc. Now, ironically, it seems to me that we white European mutts have a sort of double standard with regard to this variety of racism. We think, on the one hand, that we should not prefer other white European mutts, but we seem to have no problem when members of other races (or cultures) exhibit this kind of preference. Now, I think our double standard is partially justified on the basis that discrete and insular minority groups in America may have more in common with each other and less in common with the rest of us, whereas the various varieties of American mutts, provided that they do not belong to a discrete and insular minority group, likely have similar cultural backgrounds and expectations for marriage or friendship, so that the difference in race is not felt as much as it is in the case of those minority groups who tend to stick with each other. In the case of such discrete and insular minority groups (Hmong refugee looking for another Hmong refugee to marry, for example), this kind of group mentality makes sense. In the case of relationships between differing varieties of American mutts who belong to the mainstream “American” culture, it does not make sense.
But if this fourth kind of racism is sometimes justified and sometimes not, it follows that it is not fundamentally wrong. We cannot universally condemn it, until we look into the particular circumstances at issue. The question is not whether, as an a priori matter, it is right or wrong, but whether it is reasonable in the particular context.
How ‘Bout Trump
No doubt we could come up with more varieties of racism, but these four seem to me to embody the main things we call racism. Now the question is, under which of these definitions is Trump racist? I’ll take a few examples of his generally considered “racist” remarks, and we can think together if they fit one of the descriptions. Feel free to keep going with more of his quotes on your own–and post in the comments–if you just can’t get enough. Are his words truly racist, or are they “Trumpist?”
The Trumpism: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Racist or Trumpist?: Under which definition is this racist? Strictly speaking, under none of them, in my opinion, except perhaps the fourth (racial us versus them mentality). He did not say that Mexicans are as a race disproportionately criminal relative to white people, but rather that the Mexicans who have immigrated are disproportionately criminal relative to other Mexicans. It is an interesting claim, and it may even be true. We should not dismiss it as “racist”–it must stand or fall, like all other factual claims and like all opinions, simply on the evidence. And I am not acquainted with the evidence, so I withhold judgment. But it is not racist under the first or third definitions (first: race does matter; third: fundamental superiority). Under the second definition (race should matter), the comment could arguably suggest racism.
The ultimate point of the statement was that illegal (Mexican) aliens should be treated a certain way under the immigration laws. But it was not that Mexicans precisely as Mexicans should be treated differently in any particular context or in all contexts, and that is what would count as racist if we are being strict about the second definition. Under the fourth definition (group mentality), we can make a decent case for racism. Trump was drawing lines and promising to favor those on one side of the line. That seems to me to have been one of his primary campaign strategies.
However, his “us versus them” mindset has never been primarily racial. Instead, the lines he has drawn have been drawn primarily on the basis of socio-economic status, national identity, and general sensibility. He promises to favor the neglected middle class; he promises to favor American interests, people, and jobs; he promises (implicitly) to favor those who have similar sensibilities as him–those who, for example, watch reality TV and porn and dream of being rich. “I’m like you,” says Trump, “and I will favor you.” So they voted for him. (5) [v]
And then he won. The malignant underpinning of this technically-not-truly-racist comment is that it, along with the support provided by the win, seems to condone seeing any Mexican with an added measure of suspicion. The soft “OK” it provides to “citizen-justice” abuse (because “we” are the victims of the rape and drug trade, and the Mexican illegal is the perpetrator) is evil–maybe subversively leading to even more evil than an outright racist comment would have done.
The Trumpism: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”
Racist or Trumpist?: Trump said that we should keep Muslims from entering the country–a policy with which I could not disagree more. I’ll spare you the full analysis, but my conclusion is that this was mainly an “us versus them” statement, and the “us” and “them” categories are drawn on the basis of religious and political affiliation. This was simply a stupid but accessible way of saying, “I’m going to be tough on terror–and political correctness is not going to stop me. Most recent terrorist attacks have been carried out by Muslims; the most prominent terrorist groups are affiliated with Islam; and therefore Muslims are suspect.” There are holes in the logic, yes. But this is not racist under any definition given above.
Certainly, Trump acknowledges in certain other comments that race does and sometimes should matter. And I agree, as does anybody in favor of affirmative action. That is, I may not agree with the particular things he said, but I agree with the general stance that race does and sometimes should matter, along with supporters of affirmative action. I have never heard of anything he has said that would suggest he considers his race or any race fundamentally superior to any other (although the effect of his words on his support-base are another thing entirely). And he has an us-versus-them mentality, but it is not a racial us-versus-them mentality. It is just a general, “Our people will be preferred above other people under my administration.”
Now, us versus them thinking cannot be condemned as a general matter, whether the categories are racial or otherwise, without examining the context and justification for favoring the interests of “us” over “them.” Us versus them thinking is the primary virtue defending the right to ownership; it is the drive behind democracy. It is what sets families and any other insular group apart from everyone else, as Josh aptly pointed out in his recent essay on “Privilege.” And most of us, including me to some extent, do want our president to go out there in the international arena and work for our benefit as Americans, instead of disinterestedly serving the general human good. I personally wish we Americans did take a great deal more interest in serving the general human good, and I am convinced that we would be well served in the long run by taking such an interest. But this essay is not an examination of the morality or expediency of preferring Americans’ welfare above that of others. It is an examination of racism and Trump, and I conclude that Trump is pro-“Us” and anti-”Them”: pro-American, anti-illegal immigrant, anti-terrorist, etc. And not racist in any malignant sense (though the same cannot be said of some of his supporters). To the extent he appears racist in any malignant sense, that appearance is incident to his pro-citizen, pro-American, and pro-American-worker stances.
To be sure, I disagree with most of what Trump purports when he is in his “us versus them” mode. I disagree on the grounds of the unreasonableness of the means he would use and often on the grounds of the end he would achieve. I absolutely condemn the malignantly racist words and actions his us-versus-them words have enabled and emboldened in some of his support base. But I do not condemn us versus them thinking as a general matter. We all do and sometimes should engage in that kind of thinking.
Even if we disagree with Trump’s claims, evidences, and platforms, we still might not be able to call him a racist–and we’d be better off in our opposition if we didn’t. There is something much more concerning than the fact that Trump said these things: namely, that it does not seem he was even concerned with their truth or falsehood, their wisdom or foolishness. Instead, it appeared to him politically expedient to say them, so he did. Trump often attempts to leverage people’s dissatisfaction, fear, and insecurity for his political gain–and even their enmity. (Why not leverage whatever is leverageable, from his perspective?)
To us, Trump appears almost infinitely below the moral stature of Abraham Lincoln, who, in starkest contrast with Trump, attempted to leverage only people’s hope and love towards their country and their fellow man for the gain of all–including even his enemies. (6) [vi]
When we label his rabble-rousing opportunism, greed, and pride (positive and nurtured evils) as just “racism” (a mis-evidenced, incorrect opinion), we actually downplay his capacity for control and influence, and place ourselves in the comfy, dangerous boat that Trump loves to frequent. Her bow says Unthinking Criticism, and she’s headed through rapids and off a waterfall of ill-formed opinions.
[i] Racist or misogynistic comments tend to get people shunned from highly publicized spheres, like professional sports and Hollywood. In 2014 alone, two NBA coaches (Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson) sold their teams after certain “racist” remarks were discovered. Donald Sterling’s remarks evinced his opinion that he and his family members should not associate with black people. Now that really is pretty “racist” under any definition, and the public backlash when those comments came out impelled the NBA to force him to sell the Clippers. Bruce Levenson’s story, though, has a bit more nuance. As far as I can tell, he simply observed–maybe even accurately–that the predominantly black fan base of his team (the Hawks) might be scaring off the prospective white fans; that a predominantly white fan base might be financially more advantageous for the team; and that it might be advisable, therefore, to do more to cater to white culture–play music they would recognize, etc. He was pressured into selling his controlling share in the Hawks when that email came out. But, unlike Sterling, he was not forced–because he joined in his own condemnation and announced that he thought it in the team’s best interests to sell. Well, Bruce Levenson, you may think that you were racist when you wrote that email, but I don’t. It may have been wrong to propose an attempt to cater to white fans, but it wasn’t racist–at least, not in any malignant sense. The liberal academy has spilled a heaping ton of ink on what seem to me silly questions, like, “Was Mark Twain a racist?” The question is silly, in part, because I don’t see why it matters. To be sure, I am interested in his views on race and on the political issues of his day. These things matter to me. But I don’t see why it matters whether those views make him “racist” by 21st-century standards. What is the value in applying the label “racist” to long-dead authors? I am not sure the writers who opine on the subject see why it matters either. Instead, I think many of them write about racism in literature because it is a way of flying one’s multiculturalist flag, as it were. It shows that you care about the “right” issues, and join with the “correct” brand of intellectuals in condemning certain old ways of thinking – ways of thinking, which, however, are often only shallowly understood by those who critique them – or so it seemed to me, at any rate, when I got my Masters degree in Victorian literature. No doubt the truly accomplished scholars who write on these matters have more nuanced views. But many of the amateur student-scholars with whom I worked (thankfully, not all) had a most annoying habit of elbowing each other knowingly and at every opportunity throwing around terms like “colonialism,” “racism,” “heteronormativity,” “socially constructed,” and “hegemony” (pronounced “hedge-EM-uh-nee” by members of this club, by the way).
[ii] See footnote one for the story.
[iii] One’s racial heritage is often intimately connected with one’s cultural heritage, and cultures do sometimes tend to produce certain sensibilities or certain ways of looking at things, so that Leo Tolstoy is quite possibly absolutely correct, as a general matter, about his characterization of Frenchman and Englishmen and Germans and Russians in War and Peace. I am currently listening to that book as I ride my bike to and from the light rail station. Under this second definition, Leo Tolstoy is racist, insofar as he assumes that there are differences that do actually matter between the various white races of Europe. But I assume that his generalizations were about as accurate and as helpful as generalizations can be (and they can be both accurate and helpful). For instance, Tolstoy points out a true fact that is worth knowing: Germans did and still do, as a general rule, love order and philosophy and rule-bounded-ness. This quality of the culture is noticeable for anybody who has gotten to know the culture, and helpful to those getting to know the culture (although there are, of course, limitations and exceptions to every generalization, this particular characteristic was told to us several times as an insider-tip by Germans when my wife and I moved to Frankfurt to live one summer).
Furthermore, for those in my audience who take the Bible seriously, it seems to me a difficult position to maintain that God does not care about one’s race. Throughout the Old Testament, it is clear that he does care about it or at least was reported to do so, and God incarnate as Jesus Christ also was reported to makde distinctions between Israelites and Gentiles. Though he foresaw the transmission of the gospel to all people even as he called the Greek woman a “doggie,” he protested to her that his Father had only sent him to Israel. And then of course he healed the child of the Greek woman. To hear moderns talk, you would think that they thought themselves morally superior to Jesus because he acknowledged that sometimes race both does and should matter while they claim it does not and should not, even though he loved and blessed the woman, while they (for the most part) merely spout ideological nonsense about peoples whom they do not know or love.
[iv] There were, unfortunately, some reasonable grounds for holding this view in past contexts, such as the smaller average skull size of black people compared with white people, and the fact that from certain cultural perspectives at least, outsiders really are inferior in some important aspect(s). The courage and love of country that characterized Romans before they grew fat and wicked, together with their immense cultural accomplishments and highly developed rhetorical culture, justified the Roman (in his own mind, at least) in his view that he was, by virtue of being Roman, superior to others. Now, I don’t say he was superior by virtue of being Roman–only that his perception that he was superior was not completely stupid.
[v] Not that all Trump-supporters watch reality TV and porn and dream of being rich–but I would bet that a substantial majority of those who do voted for Trump in large part because of this bad fellow-feeling.
[vi] And including non-Americans: the Gettysburg address is largely concerned with the international and historical consequences of the Civil War’s outcome. I most sincerely fear that Trump, by contrast, is a relative stranger to the “better angels of our nature.”