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Is This the Beginning of the End of American Racism?
Donald Trump has revealed the depths of the country’s prejudice—and has inadvertently forced a reckoning.
image above: The Atlantic
WN: I love the ironic optimism of this piece! As you will see excerpted in context below, I also love the ultimate irony of this statement:
Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.
One can hope that in this worldwide kairos moment, this truth below and beside takes deep root:
The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great Light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The Light will shine on them.–Isaiah 9:2
On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you1, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining.—1 John 2:8
Hope wells up, especially as the new Church Year beginning with Advent season is this Sunday!
But in a twisted way, Trump was right. As his administration’s first term comes to an end, Black Americans—indeed, all Americans—should in one respect be thankful to him. He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.
Veteran activists and new recruits to the cause pushed policy makers to hold violent police officers accountable, to ban choke holds and no-knock warrants, to shift funding from law enforcement to social services, and to end the practice of sending armed and dangerous officers to respond to incidents in which the suspect is neither armed nor dangerous. But these activists weren’t merely advocating for a few policy shifts. They were calling for the eradication of racism in America once and for all.
Trump held up a mirror to American society, and it reflected back a grotesque image that many had refused to see.
Yet fundamental shifts in American views of race were already under way before the COVID-19 disparities became clear and before these latest examples of police violence surfaced. The percentage of Americans who told Monmouth pollsters that racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem made a greater leap from January 2015 (51 percent) to July 2016 (68 percent) than from July 2016 to June 2020 (76 percent). What we are witnessing right now is the culmination of a longer process—a process that tracks closely with the political career of Donald Trump.
To Trump, and to many of his supporters, the American body must be a white body. When he launched his presidential campaign, on June 16, 2015, he began with attacks on immigrants of color and on the person whose citizenship he’d falsely questioned as a peddler of birtherism: Barack Obama. They were all desecrating the American body. Of Mexican immigrants, he said: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Of Obama, he said: “He’s been a negative force. We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again.”
Led by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the administration worked on ways to restrict immigration by people of color. There was a sense of urgency, because, as Trump said at a private White House meeting in June 2017, Haitians “all have AIDS” and Nigerians would never “go back to their huts” once they came to the United States.
The America that denied its racism through the Obama years has struggled to deny its racism through the Trump years. From 1977 to 2018, the General Social Survey asked whether Black Americans “have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people … mainly due to discrimination.” There are only two answers to this question. The racist answer is “no”—it presumes that racist discrimination no longer exists and that racial inequities are the result of something being wrong with Black people. The anti-racist answer is “yes”—it presumes that nothing is wrong or right, inferior or superior, about any racial group, so the explanation for racial disparities must be discrimination.
In 2008, as Obama was headed for the White House, only 34.5 percent of respondents answered “yes,” a number I’ll call the anti-racist rate. This was the second-lowest anti-racist rate of the 41-year polling period. The rate rose to 37.7 percent in 2010, perhaps because the emergence of the Tea Party forced a reckoning for some white Americans, but it fell back down to 34.9 percent in 2012 and 34.6 percent in 2014.
In 2016, as Trump loomed over American politics, the anti-racist rate rose to 42.6 percent. It went up to 46.2 percent in 2018, a double-digit increase from the start of the Obama administration. In large part, shifts in white public opinion explain the jump. The white anti-racist rate was barely 29.8 percent in 2008. It jumped to 37.7 percent in 2016 and to 40.5 percent two years into Trump’s presidency.
The United States has often been called a land of contradictions, and to be sure, its failings sit alongside some notable achievements—a New Deal for many Americans in the 1930s, the defeat of fascism abroad in the 1940s. But on racial matters, the U.S. could just as accurately be described as a land in denial. It has been a massacring nation that said it cherished life, a slaveholding nation that claimed it valued liberty, a hierarchal nation that declared it valued equality, a disenfranchising nation that branded itself a democracy, a segregated nation that styled itself separate but equal, an excluding nation that boasted of opportunity for all. A nation is what it does, not what it originally claimed it would be. Often, a nation is precisely what it denies itself to be.
In the end, only four Republicans and the House’s lone independent voted with all the Democrats to condemn the president of the United States. That means 187 House Republicans, or 98 percent of the caucus, denied that telling four congresswomen of color to go back to their countries was racist. They believed, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, that “the president’s not a racist.”
To call out the president’s racism would have been to call out their own racism. McConnell had been quietly killing anti-racist bills that had come out of the House since January 2019, starting with the new House’s first bill, which aimed to protect Americans against voter suppression.
Then came Charlottesville. On August 11, 2017, about 250 white supremacists marched on the University of Virginia campus, carrying torches that lit up the night sky with racism and anti-Semitism. Demonstrating against Charlottesville’s plan to remove statues honoring Confederates, they chanted, “Blood and soil!” They chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” They chanted, “White lives matter!”
The white supremacists clashed with anti-racist demonstrators that night and the next afternoon. White lives did not matter to the white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. He drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
I fear that this is how many Americans are thinking right now: Routine surgery—the defeat of Donald Trump at the polls—will heal the American body. No need to look deeper, at police departments, at schools, at housing. Are Americans now acknowledging racism, but telling themselves the problem is contained? Are they telling themselves that it is a big problem, but it can’t have spread to almost every part of the body politic? Will this become the new form of American denial?
False hope was my new normal, until it wasn’t. When they scanned my body, doctors found that the cancer had spread. I had Stage 4 colon cancer. I had two choices: denial and death, or recognition and life. America now has two choices.
Please click on: End of American Racism?Footnotes
- 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.—I John 4:21