A former student whom I had not seen for the past seven years surprised me recently with a very welcomed Zoom chat. The student, whom I will call “Simon” in the service of anonymity, is a young white man who was enrolled in a graduate course I taught focusing on topics in Social Justice Education. He was always engaged, open-minded, and showed compassion and intelligence in the ways he critically analyzed the texts under discussion and how he communicated with his peers.
Simon always appeared to me as a genuine searcher for truth, a critical thinker who was interested in approaching topics from multiple perspectives to understand all sides of an issue.
Though I realize that professors are not supposed to have “favorites,” Simon was one of mine. We often met out of class over coffee to continue discussions begun in class. I admired his fearless willingness and ability to challenge me on points I brought up when we perceived issues differently and even during occasions when we were in total agreement on many of the particulars.
Much of our recent Zoom chat centered on politics, particularly on topics of “race” and racism. He began the discussion with a simple caveat: that he does not support our current President, Donald Trump, regarding his policies or character. In fact, he would not consider voting for him.
With that as a backdrop, though, Simon expressed in his tone and body language a certain uneasiness over what he heard expressed by some people on the political Left who label anyone who votes for Trump as a “racist,” and he asked for my perspective.
Though I stated that any generalization, in this case that Trump supporters are all racist, is flawed and cannot truly determine any nuanced realities and what is in people’s hearts and minds, but that by voting for Trump, they by default at least condone if not adhere to his what I consider as clearly racist policies used for his political agenda of instilling fear and separating people from one another.
“Race,” “Racism,” “Racist”
Looking over the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the fifteenth century of the Common Era (CE), and reaching its apex in the early twentieth century CE (see, e.g., Smedley & Smedley, 2005).
Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” than between “races,” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.” They assert, therefore, that “race” is discursively constructed—an historical, “scientific,” biological myth, an idea—and that any socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictive and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body (see, e.g., Rutherford, 2017).
Carmelita Castañeda and Ximena Zúñiga (2013) defines “racism” as: “the set of institutional, cultural, and interpersonal patterns and practices that create advantages for people legally defined and socially constructed as white, and the corollary disadvantages for people defined as belonging to racial groups that were not considered whites by the dominant power construct….” (p. 58).
Beverely Daniel Tatum (1999) understands racism intersectionally by emphasizing that “it is important to acknowledge that while all whites benefit from racism, they do not all benefit equally. Other factors, such as socioeconomic status, gender, age, religious affiliations, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, also play a role in our social influence and power” (p. 12).
The philosophy and practice of white supremacy devalues all non-European-heritage lives and cultures. The institution of slavery in the “Americas” was built on a foundation of white supremacy. Primarily white people, backed by wealthy whites, invaded Africa, and then tracked, enticed, snared, and captured the proud people on the continent, chained and packed them like sardines into crowded ships’ cargo holds, and transported them across vast oceans to foreign shores stripping those who survived of their dignity, languages, cultures, families, and humanity.
The kidnappers as well as the residents of these lands viewed the “cargo” as cheap lives that did not matter, except to fulfill their needs for unpaid labor and to satisfy their sadistic ego and sexual gratification. If the enslaved had the audacity to misbehave or to escape the reserve called “the plantation,” whites tracked, enticed, snared, captured and either returned them to the reserve where their so-called “masters” tortured them as examples to inhibit others from attempting escape, or they killed them.
Though whites did not need a rationalization for their terror, they justified their brutality on their interpretations of religious scriptures and, also, on the newly-constructed “science of race.” The “founding fathers” took these constructions not only to reinscribe and revalidate the institution of slavery — many of these “founders” themselves enslaved large numbers of kidnapped Africans — but they also wrote into the U.S. Constitution the so-called “three-fifths clause” counting enslaved Africans as equivalent to three-fifths of a full human being for census purposes.
So then, can we call anyone a “racist” with definite assurance and confidence? Well, Donald Trump has a proved track record of demonstrating racist behaviors, from when he and his father were criminally charged and convicted of maintaining discriminatory rental and sales practices against black and brown people in Trump properties, to defining Mexicans and later most Latin Americans as “rapists” and “drug traffickers,” to defining African nations as “sh*thole countries,” to Tweeting and lodging verbal insults on several black female journalists, and the list goes on.
But can one say Trump is “a racist.” I suppose one can! And what about someone who stands idly by perceiving what he is doing and says nothing? Are they also “racist” for not intervening but condoning Trump by their silence?
Continuing our Zoom chat, Simon also asked if I believe that people who voted for Trump, people who did not necessarily support most of his policies, did so because he offered the best choice among the candidates to turn back Roe v. Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion)?
I prefer, rather, to label Trump (or anyone’s) actions rather than their being. Yes, Trump has repeated and perennially exhibited racist behaviors; he has announced and perpetuated racist policies; and he has vomited a seemingly endless number of toxic racist epithets.
I can surmise, but I do not or cannot definitively know people’s true motives or gaze deeply into their souls. Therefore, I try not to place labels onto a person’s natures and temperaments.
Under the Hitler regime…the most important thing that I learned…was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence. — Joachim Prinz, Rabbi of Berlin, exiled in 1937 to the United States, from his speech August 28, 1963, Washington, DC
And yes, I can say that anyone who votes for Donald J. Trump in the next election supports racism by collusion and commission, especially with the conclusive evidence validating the charge that Trump uses racist tactics and strategies to frighten and divide the electorate.
I ask them: “Is your interest in having more conservative federal judges worth the risk to our country with the overall and possibly irreparable damage Trump is doing to our institutions and to our very democracy?”
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. — Voltaire.
I often wonder how Trump’s Republican enablers can sleep at night and get back up in the morning still willing to degrade and prostrate themselves by attacking our democratic institutions and seriously dismantling our country’s standing in the world.
Each time anyone enables an abusive action, they keep perpetrators and themselves further from the truth and from help, and they diminish themselves and their integrity more than just a bit.
I have been stuck time and time again throughout the post-factual campaign, transition, and now presidency of Donald J. Trump of the lies, the verifiable lies, big and small that he spreads and his direct attacks on our democratic institutions such as the entire judicial system, the House of Representatives, and the State Department.
Even more troubling, however, are Trump’s enablers in his attempts to circumvent the Constitution and destroy our democratic institutions from the halls of the White House.
These enablers spin the facts by turning themselves into virtual pretzels in defense of Trump’s attempts, to paraphrase Voltaire, make us believe his absurdities intended to give him permission to commit possible atrocities. And this is how extremism succeeds in the end.
- Castañeda, C. & Zúñiga, X. (2013). Introduction: Racism. In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Castañeda, R., Hackman, H., Peters, M., and Zúñiga, X. (Eds.). Readings for diversity and social justice (3th edition), New York: Routledge.
- Rutherford, A. (2017). A brief history of everyone who ever lived: The human story told through our genes. Great Britain: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Smedley, A. & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist, 60(1), Jan., 16-26.
- Tatum, B. D. (1999). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.
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