Am I Racist: Trump Edition

trump-2Given the recent Trump phenomenon, the political-correctness backlash, and the counter-charge that liberals routinely and unfairly deploy the accusation that conservatives are racist, I wanted to take minute to grapple with this one, and make a few prescriptions from a rhetorical perspective.

Short answer: no, conservatives are not intrinsically racist. And less and less. There is a new generation of ‘lite’ conservatives that will have a significant market position if they can successfully inhabit an racially/ethnically/LGBT* inclusive platform, while keeping other traditional republican positions. If successful, this group will also pull center-right democrats from the herd. This will be a space to watch.

But there’s still a divergence here that’s easy to spot. Let’s start with, “what do liberals and conservatives mean when they talk about someone being racist?” Because there appears to be a nontrivial difference.

Many liberals, and most anyone who attained a liberal arts degree after 1995, have a pretty good vocabulary to talk about the particular permutations of American racism. They might know about Jim Crow laws, the history leading to the 60’s, they may have some background about the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, know the forms of housing discrimination, banking discrimination, redlining, predatory mortgages, and can talk with some base fluency about structural racism, or know what is meant by ‘white privilege.‘ There is exhaustive scholarship on this, and to deny it in this day and age is to row against history. The classic, magazine-compact summary of a perfect storm of these factors is still Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article about Chicago housing: The Case for Reparations .

So liberals educated in the discipline have a vocabulary they can deploy to describe racial events in a scholarly way, much like philosopher can point to something and say, oh, that’s empirical, that’s phenomenological, we can say, oh, that’s redlining. Or, that’s discriminatory. We can identify these events in-the-world. There is a discipline that describes them. While there are some conservatives really up-to-date on this stuff, these ideas are so left-centric that knowing them or having them is almost enough to make you a liberal, though I wish this weren’t true.

The conservative vocabulary for forms of racism isn’t as nuanced. Conservatives rarely acknowledge the structural elements at play in what is called Institutional Racism. It’s quite possible to benefit from a racist society, and have no idea that it is working to your benefit, indeed, and critically, if it’s working properly you aren’t supposed to. Many liberals believe this to be the case, and many conservatives do not, and this is a main point of divergence. Either you believe white privilege (for example) is something that happens, or you don’t.

By contrast, the conservative storyline takes hard work, grit and most importantly, personal responsibility as the elements that carry the day. Outside factors, like those listed above, are disadvantages (if you acknowledge they exist, many conservatives don’t), but hey, everyone has disadvantages, even if they aren’t applied equally. It is the process of your story to apply discipline and perseverance to surmounting these obstacles. Then you’ll be, oh, paid what you’re worth, a Self Made Man, a Maker Not a Taker, and so on.

So if, according to the conservative storyline, the only events that befall us are those that arise from our choices, the only real way to be a racist is to be a cognitively committed racist, which you might even state openly, whereas to the liberal mind, it’s possible to be acting in a racist way simply by being insufficiently self-aware of one’s role in a racist system at any given moment.

This means for liberals, you might not think of yourself as a Klansman, but can take a racist step, and be acting in a racist way that– to your own misfortune– you did not even intend.
To the conservative, that doesn’t happen. If you are racist, it took a certain level of cognitive intention to get there. Somebody telling you that you have done a racist thing is typically a case of someone just being too sensitive, too ‘politically correct.’ I am not committed to the idea of inequality of the races. I am not a Klansman, ergo, I am not racist. Indeed, I believe in justice and fairness. I judge people individually.

(Now is a good moment to say not all liberals or conservatives think this way. I’m not painting with too broad a brush, but this is definitely a fat magic-marker. There are some, albeit few, conservatives who are deeply concerned and up-to-date with racial justice discussions, and plenty of otherwise liberal racists, to say nothing of liberal overcompensators who see the actions of structural racism at play in their cup of coffee. Not the point I’m making.)

The good news for the liberal method is that one is not cornered, and can usually revise their behavior if they so choose. This may involve momentary humility, but otherwise not too much ego-driven dissonance. Phrases like “check your privilege,” while deeply irritating, are a nod to the kind of quick reassessment that is possible in the liberal view. Liberals rarely think of themselves as racists, but feel attuned to its latency, and when they are, they feel pleased to think that they are at least capable of changing. Racism isn’t a terminal point, it’s a process that we need to be alert to, an ongoing negotiation with our psyche. We were all fed the same bad programming, and we have the tools to evaluate it. Indeed, sometimes no change will be necessary. The bad news for liberals is that this also means they toss around a word with an academic meaning in a way that devalues its social meaning, which is akin to an insult. Sometimes, confrontation is needed. Politics, however, is a science of persuasion.

The conservative method breaks but does not bend. Because racism is perceived as a commitment to an idea that they don’t feel they hold– you can’t accidentally wander into it. Accordingly, as a logical matter, it’s quite difficult for a conservative to ‘be’ racist, they can only be ‘a’ racist. That is, if I say I’m not, that would have to be the end of the discussion. My intentions, my responsibilities, aren’t accidental.

No wonder that the liberal accusations of republican racism don’t land, because they make conservatives feel cornered and unfairly tarred, and thus call the whole observation into question. It pushes too hard, if only because liberals don’t know how hard they are pushing. That flexibility is part of the worldview liberals think is shared.  It’s not.

The Trump phenomenon also draws from this well. People can only feel cornered so many times before they are compelled to back to the corner and hold the position. To have the target of the critique come to identify with the critique out of exhaustion or confusion is exactly the last outcome anyone should want.

Conservatives now take the idea that they may be engaging in racist demagoguery, for example, unseriously and wear the criticism as a badge of pride. They call this ‘not being politically correct.’ It’s a clean way for them to defang the critique without having to change, and it does the job. The message is extremely successful. You don’t need to change to meet the world, it promises. This was done to you. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? (No!) Well, OK then.

Liberals will have a part to play, here, not because we’re wrong, but because we want to be effective and get the message through, and the message isn’t about Trump the man or the next demagogue to come along. The message is what qualifies as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and reaffirming what our values are. Standing for something is what gets people activated, not knocking down a target (although that’s hand-in-hand).

We are trying to persuade, not accuse. So our strategy has to be to use language that is procedural, process-oriented, changeable, and focused on our ability to identify him by his deeds, not our ability to read his heart. Being critical of deeds triggers less ego defense, besides which, being a racist isn’t a permanent condition and should have as many exits as possible. This flexibility is the enduring advantage of a liberal mentality. If you’re not right, get right.

The final point here is that confronting the man-as-message instead of the content of the message leaves the field open for the next person to come along with the same message, repackaged and calling the last instance an unexpected aberration. Neither Ted Cruz’s stance on immigration nor Marco Rubio’s are an improvement, in case you haven’t been paying attention.

Trump the man isn’t the problem. American animus, and the way he plays it, is the problem.

So: Trump isn’t “an” Islamophobe. Trump “takes an Islamophobic step” by suggesting policy proposals that assume all Muslims share the same intentions toward the United States based on the actions of a few and collectively punishing them all.

Trump isn’t “a” racist for suggesting that most of the Latinos coming across the border are murderers and rapists. He “makes a racist argument” by doing this. None of us know what Trump thinks, indeed some of us suspect him to be a cynical manipulator who could care less about Latinos one way or the other. But we sure as hell know what he’s saying, and we aren’t having it.

Were I younger, a hardliner, I’d find this an insufficiently muscular approach to confronting a reckless proponent of dangerous ideas. I’ve come to see this as an error of perspective. This isn’t a military engagement and victories are not won in an instant. This is democratic persuasion, which almost never happens in real-time, but gradually. We need the tent to be big and our ideas clear, so we can draw some of his supporters back to the light, or, at least, out of the abyss. We don’t need to be the best at insulting our opponents, or shoving them out. We need Trump to lose, yes. More to the point: what we need, is to win.

Trayvon, Part 2

Anonymous Hoodie B&WThere seems to be some kind of misunderstanding here.

People are throwing around all kinds of bizarre comparisons of the Trayvon Martin case to newer crimes in which blacks and whites are fighting, and/or killing each other, generally.  This does not a similarity make.  Please stop making these comparisons.

Two cases have arisen in the past week which the media, and some good friends, have conflated  with the Martin/Zimmerman case.  The most recent is the Christopher Lane murder.  Lane, an Australian baseball player living in the United States, was murdered by three “thrill kill” suspects.  The motive, as they stated it, was because they were “bored.”  Oh, and at least two of the three suspects were, in some varying shade, black, also (check the comments on CNN for a dispiriting reminder as to why that is so important).  The third perp’s race is still anyone’s guess, and I feel demeaned to have to have written that sentence.  This story continues to evolve, but there are already plenty of strong opinions emerging, which is exactly the situation the numbskulls at CNN are paid to create, so, bravo.

The second case that’s being shoved into the box with Trayvon Martin is the Florida bus beating.  Although initially angled as a story about the obligations the bus driver did or did not have to intervene, it wasn’t long before the usual talking heads made it into a race story, even going so far as to criticize Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for their silence on the issue.

To clarify, any connection between these stories is a media invention.  The only– only! points of overlap are that all three stories featured whites and blacks in conflict.  Indeed, so far the motives behind each seem to be entirely different.  Still, I’m constantly impressed with the ways this story can be re-framed by the beholder to fit their particular agenda.

Here’s mine.  So let’s recap.

First, it’s probably worth mentioning what made the Trayvon Martin case so important to black America, and why it became a cause at issue for the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and everyone else.

Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are concerned with the advancement of African Americans specifically, and underrepresented minorities in general, in light of a system that systematically undervalues them (as a historical note, take a look at Sharpton’s recent endorsement of LGBT causes in his time on MSNBC).  We can talk about the specifics of what it means to be undervalued, of which there are many, but to save typing on topics that I hope are obvious and well-documented, there it is.

To put it another way, their traditional area of concern is not crime overall and not law-enforcement in general.  They are not under any special obligation to respond to each and every murder in the media, over even every black-on-black, black-on-white, or white-on-black crime.

Black America believes, rightly or wrongly, but as has been borne out statistically, that they are disadvantaged in the criminal justice process.  Specifically they believe that black guilt is overstated (racial profiling, disproportionate sentencing) and that the likelihood of achieving justice is lower than for whites. Trust in police is low overall, and there is a belief in selective law-enforcement that is borne out by history, most especially in the contemporary conversation as concerns this nation’s so-called drug war.  A black corpse at a murder scene is worth less than a white one, a black suspect is guiltier than a white one, all before the trial even starts.  If you kill blacks, your sentence will be light, if you kill whites, you are going to jail.  And if you kill a white woman, you are going away forever.  This is the feeling, these are the perceptions, these are the bells that this case rings.

White America does not have to agree with this, but they need to know that this is the moment where in so doing, they are telling black America, “we disregard your personal and direct experience and substitute our own.”  Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.  Ask your black friend.

The Trayvon Martin case was illustrative of this.  Not only could an innocent teen be stalked by an armed vigilante, but he could be killed by that vigilante with no perceptible consequence.  Self-defense or no, this was galling to people of color for the simple reason that there was the strong belief that if the situation were reversed and Trayvon were white and Zimmerman were black, black Zimmerman would be in prison today.  This is the perception, and the core of what that case is about to black America: the feeling, backed by evidence, of systematic disadvantages in the justice process.

This was the symbolic significance of the hood: The anonymous, existential danger faced by black men in a society that is incapable of distinguishing their basic humanity, one that sees them as a statistic or a threat.  One in which they can be stopped, frisked, and killed.


It was not a discussion about crime.  Crimes happen.  Everyone gets this.  Heads-up: there will be another one tomorrow.

It was not a discussion about white-on-black attacks.  Some people may have declared Zimmerman a ‘racist’, but its probably more precise to say that he took a racist step in his approach of Martin.  It’s important to note here that one does not have to be a committed, ideological ‘racist’ to behave in a racist way or work on behalf of a racist power structure.  You don’t even– get ready for this– have to be white.  You can be black!  You can even be half-Peruvian.  The assertions that “Zimmerman isn’t even white, so there” showed a pretty fundamental misapprehension of this part of the situation.

If there is documentation of historically racist behavior by Zimmerman, however, this should be part of that conversation.  But it isn’t important to the story, really, unless we are seeing this as some kind of hate crime, which never seemed to be in evidence.

It was not a discussion about legal strategy in the state of Florida, though that was absolutely pertinent to the outcome.  Yes, they should have gone for manslaughter, etc etc.  But this is legal strategy, not the intuition about what justice would actually mean, or the sense that it can be attained.

It was partially about gun law, and alluded to Stand Your Ground.  Though SYG played no part in the trial, it would have been impossible to have the story play out the way it did without some expectation that killing an unarmed teenager could play out without consequence.  So the SYG philosophy was an ongoing, if off-camera, presence in these discussions.  SYG was the context, but not the content.

Back to Lane and those damn kids on the bus.

I find the attempt to force a connection to be, well, kind of racist.  It’s not enough that there are black people still committing crimes, and sometimes they will even kill white people (statistically far, far more infrequently than other blacks, of course).  But that’s not really any kind of commonality.

The kids on the bus stated it plainly: the beating was retaliation because the victim turned them into their teachers as drug dealers.  Not sure we can’t still squeeze some racial motive in here, but as far as reasons go, this one is as old as the hills.

As far as the thrill-kill goes, if we take the killers at their word, they were bored and wanted to kill someone.  The fact that the someone turned out to be white may well have just been his bad luck, not a specific filtering criteria they were using.   If race does turn out to be a factor, a comparison to the James Byrd Jr. case in Jasper, Texas would be more apt.  Byrd was  dragged to his death behind a truck by avowed white supremacists whose intent was to kill him for the crime of Walking Down the Road While Black.

In the Trayvon Martin case race was the detail that most believed enabled overzealous profiling by Zimmerman and less-than-vigorous law enforcement response on behalf of Martin, but few people believe that Zimmerman left the house with the intent to kill any given black teen, or anyone in particular.  At this point in the discussion, most believe Zimmerman to be a bumbling jackass who made a cascade of bad decisions leading to a predictably tragic outcome– and who was insulated from the full force of the consequences due to the race of his victim.

Another reason we see no connection is because in both the FL Bus and the Lane killing, law-enforcement acted promptly, and there is the total expectation that the guilty parties will be punished– indeed, the ‘try them as adults’ crowd should be ginning up around the Lane case right about now.  Nowhere do we see the complaint that the wheels of justice are not turning when they should. Oh, there’s gonna be a hangin’. We’re just  discussing types of rope.

Likewise, in neither case was the victim left unspoken for, as Martin was.  Indeed, sympathy for Zimmerman ran so strong that Martin was almost immediately vilified in the right-wing media and made to look like a criminal, overlooking the fact that he was still considered innocent, indeed was never on trial.  Or, as one writer so elegantly put, that “only in America could he be put on trial for his own murder.”  This is the type of historical moment that will summon up an Al Sharpton or a Jesse Jackson.

Whereas in the Christopher Lane case, they will be put on trial for the murder of someone else, for which they were caught, and for which they will go to jail.  No further amplification is needed– if race is indeed a factor, the prosecution can and should seek hate crime status.  Everyone is pretty well agreed on this.

Really, there is no connection.