Donald Trump’s initial refusal to disavow David Duke reveals the prevalence of racism in America.
Of course racism exists in America! But is America a racist society?
Until Donald Trump came along and ran for president of the United States, I was not of a mind to agree that racism is as prevalent as the media can make it out to be. Nor as serious. I would point to the progress we’ve made. We have a black president. The N word is regarded as hate speech. The law is on the side of anti-discrimination. Social media erupts at the hint of any racially-insensitive remark by a person of influence, and such remarks can disrupt, if not destroy, careers (as when Don Imus was fired years ago for joking that Rutgers women’s basketball players looked like ‘nappy-headed hoes’).
Do we really have a problem here?
Of course, one cannot deny the long institutional legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and deep-rooted racial prejudice that has left inner cities in shambles, whole communities segregated from the gates of opportunity, and gulfs between ethnic cultures that militate against a more harmonious blend of our diverse society.
But in the daily ebb and flow of cultural norms, are we really a racist society? The institutions at the forefront of society—schools, companies, government—strive every day to abide by the principles of Martin Luther King’s dream: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’
I recognized we may not yet be at the Promised Land. Sympathetic to both #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter, I am moved by one of the clear, simple messages of #blacklivesmatter that deep distrust of law enforcement is at the core of identity for a black person. I am moved, and deeply troubled, by the notion that, from the beginning of his or her conscious life, a black person internalizes a profound misgiving that the system of laws and their enforcement does not work fairly in his or her favor.
But that said, could we really doubt that the march of history is clearly in the direction of ML King’s dream?
It always seemed to me that racism prevailed only in small pockets of America—in the slurs of hidebound yokels in rustic villages and isolated neighborhoods; in marginalized groups like the Aryan Brotherhood and the KKK; or in the annals of innocuous interaction between friends who trade in coarse gibes and ethnic-racial stereotypes all in good fun, as part of the jest and camaraderie of trusting friendships (which the lords of political correctness can’t seem to appreciate). For example, in one exchange a Hispanic friend of mine called an Afghan friend of mine a ‘sand nigger,’ and my Afghan friend shot back asking if my Hispanic friend needed a job because he needed a good lawnmower. Both friends laughed heartily. This wasn’t racism. This was two friends having fun with stereotypes!
Sure, there are knuckleheads who still want to raise the Confederate flag, still mutter racial epithets under their breath like they mean it with every fiber of their being, still rant about blacks and ‘spics’ and immigrants, and are still loathe to accept interracial couples.
But as a white person, I was resentful for having to answer for the knuckleheads. I resented that the fight against racism was commandeered by rhetoric that talks about ‘white people’ seemingly, and ironically, in the same generic and stereotypical way that racists are criticized for stereotyping about blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. All black people are not the same. All Hispanics are not the same. All Asians are not the same. And neither are all white people the same! I also resented double standards like how a black person could wear a shirt that said ‘proud to be black’ but imagine the outcry if a white person wore a shirt that said ‘proud to be white.’ When the #oscarssowhite hash tag hit the airwaves, I was annoyed like others about the implicit demand for quotas.
To me, racism thrived only at the margins. Our society had evolved. Racism persisted, but it was confined to the most backward pockets of our country. Surely, it was being relegated to the pages of history.
Do I sound oblivious?
When my sister, who is married to an African American man, talked to me about white privilege, it was hard for me to grasp what in the world it was about being white that made me so privileged. When protesters started wearing hoodies after Trayvon Martin was killed, I recalled how I was stopped by a cop one night walking home: I was wearing a hoodie, was alone, and there had been a robbery in the area. It’s not just black people wearing a hoodie who are stopped by cops, I mused.
What white privilege?
Meanwhile, I was letting things slide. I was at a Washington Nationals baseball game, and a friend remarked how the city in which we grew up has deteriorated in quality of life since we grew up there, and he offered a suggestion about why this was so: it used to be all white people where he lived. I said nothing, because, well, we were at a game and I didn’t want to be a killjoy (and how ungrateful I would have felt since he gave me a free ticket!). When the father of an ex-girlfriend used to make snide remarks about the Hispanic family across the street from his home, I laughed it off, not wanting to offend my ex-girlfriend’s father. In West Virginia, in a town that is virtually all white, I was at an antique shop talking to the owner who owns half the stores on Main Street. He said he likes Washington DC (where I live), but there’s too many blacks there. They bring down the property values. I stood there shell-shocked, but remained silent because, well, who wants to make a scene? This owner was one of those guys at the margins of society, right? And besides, he followed up with his remark, but I have nothing against black people. There are some who work for me and they are good workers.
And when I thought it was okay to tell a black woman I had dated briefly that I was more attracted to mocha-skinned girls, thinking it was fine because a few months before I had broken up with a white woman for being (as I told her) ‘too white’ (yes, I really said that!), I was shocked and appalled to be called a bigot. I did not appreciate that a white woman who is told she is ‘too white’ merely thinks this is ridiculous, but a black woman who hears ‘I tend to be attracted to mocha-skinned girls’ can only assume that you are prejudiced against the color of her skin.
How much more guilty could I be? Well, only recently an emotionally-disturbed relative called my two nieces and nephew, who are half-black, ‘niglets.’ My sister, whose husband is African-American and a successful sportscaster and overall great guy, had asked me to ask our relative to take down pictures of her kids from this relative’s Facebook page. My sister does not care for certain people in our family, and I could understand a parent’s concern about her kids being on social media. So I agreed to be the intermediary and ask our relative on my sister’s behalf.
I got a storm of protest saying my sister had to get over herself, calling her a bitch, and then, out of nowhere, calling the kids ‘niglets.’ It felt like a gut punch. But I didn’t think this relative hates black people. I let it go as the venting of a person in distress (this person has all sorts of psychological problems: depression, anxiety, etc.) who had admittedly shown genuine affection for my nieces and nephew in the past and thus couldn’t possibly be a racist at heart. This person was just angry, and as long the slur never reached the ears of my sister and her kids, it would be like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear it.
But still, this person resorted to this ugly word as an insult. Why go there? This person felt insulted so wanted to return the insult. And did so by calling three innocent kids ‘niglets’ (and ‘darkies’). It was disgraceful. Nothing hurts more than the N word. The history of dehumanization and oppression and the ongoing institutional racism all associated with that one word! If I can feel a gut punch and hope like hell my nieces and nephew never hear that word, I can’t imagine what a black person feels when hearing that ugly word.
But what was I to do? These are all isolated cases, right? Just anecdotes. It was still true that we live in a society that condemns racism.
Then Donald Trump came along with his divisive rhetoric. Mexican immigrants are rapists. His past association with the birther movement. Ban all Muslims. I have been disgusted by Trump from the beginning of his entry into the race. I did think that the one refreshing thing about him was his disdain for political correctness, but I did not condone his implausible ideas about banning Muslims, his hateful stereotyping of Mexicans, and his misogynistic remarks on women. I did not take him seriously. But he was entertaining at times, and if we got some pushback on political correctness, all the better.
Once again, I was letting things slide.
Now look where Trump stands. On the verge of winning the GOP nomination. I have always believed he had a chance at winning the nomination so long as the GOP field was divided among several candidates. I still believe that he does not have a snowball’s chance in purgatory of winning a general election. But millions of Americans are going out and voting for Trump. They express their support in polls. Remarks that would destroy careers leave him untouched like he’s another Teflon Don.
I believe part of it is blind faith in a candidate who has successfully marketed himself as the anti-politician businessman who can get things done.
But then in a recent interview, he refused to immediately disavow David Duke and the KKK. He said he needed to do research. He subsequently blamed it on his earpiece. Then he disavowed. But he was asked three times! In his answer to Jake Trapper, who asked him ‘[w]ill you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote of that of other white supremacists in this election?,’ Trump said: ‘Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists…So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.’
Trump can’t blame it on the earpiece when he explicitly recited the name ‘David Duke’ in the interview. How could hear himself explicitly recite the name ‘David Duke,’ and explicitly recite the words ‘white supremacy,’ and then claim to know nothing about David Duke or white supremacy?
Nothing about white supremacy?
Was this a continuance of his disdain for political correctness? Or was he vacillating in his answer lest he alienate an important voting constituency? I would argue for an affirmative answer to both questions, because if we have learned anything, it is unfortunately the case that this remark will not stop him from winning the nomination. His supporters like him precisely because he employs such rhetoric.
If fact, they love it.
They will believe him about the earpiece. They will commend him for blaming the media. They will forgive him for giving a pass to one of the most widely-known white supremacists in the United States. And if the support for Trump from white supremacists is any indication, many will even admire him.
Such admiration, and forgiveness, makes the Trump supporter complicit in the persistence and prevalence of racism, just as my reticence made me a culprit all those times when I overheard prejudiced remarks and remained silent. The Trump phenomenon has been a personal awakening for me. A mea culpa. It shows that racism is alive and well in America. My ex-girlfriend’s father who made snide remarks about the Hispanic family across the street is probably among those ready to vote for Trump in the Massachusetts primary on Tuesday. My friend at the National game is a Trump supporter. We have all read stories in the news about racist utterances overheard at Trump rallies. The fact that Trump’s initial refusal to disavow David Duke is not immediately disqualifying, and that millions of supporters are still ready to support him on Election Day, are numerical testaments to the prevalence of racism in America that I never thought possible in my lifetime.
Trump, in short, has become a conduit for the expression of crypto-racism embraced by millions of Americans, and it’s cloaked under the guise of a disdain for political correctness. If millions of people are willing to forgive, even admire, Trump for refusing, even just initially, to disavow David Duke, then those same millions cannot be counted on to think seriously, or even care, about the ongoing problem of institutional racism.
There are many perils in the Trump phenomenon. He is not a serious candidate. He does not have serious ideas. He profoundly lacks depth in foreign policy that world leaders will exploit. But he is also a conduit for the expression of crypto-racism en masse in America. I have been wrong all along. Racism is alive and well in America, not just in the institutional legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but in the very attitudes and latent fears and hopes of millions of Americans. In letting things slide over the years, I had believed racism did not have the sway in America that it was made out to have. I had relegated it to the dustbin of history. But now millions of Americans are willing to let slide a man’s refusal to disavow David Duke and then vote for him to assume the highest office in the land.
When millions of Americans are willing to vote into the presidency a man who profanes the political discourse in the way only a reality TV star can, a man who has cast a cloud of dark demagoguery over the land of the free and home of the brave, a man who wields the rhetoric of racial divisiveness, I have to conclude that Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency is a macrocosm of hundreds, thousands, and millions of microcosms that I and others have let slide all through the years. Racism is not going the way of history. It is still making history. The gradual change in attitudes necessary to mobilize a population into redressing the long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow has not been enough to prevent the media sensation of a man poised to win the GOP nomination while refusing to disavow David Duke in an interview on national television with Jake Trapper.
Trump’s mantra right now is: ‘Make America Great Again.’
Maybe it should read instead: ‘Make America White Again.’
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