What makes someone a racist?
When most people imagine a racist, they probably envisage a skinhead sitting in a bar ready to start a fight with the first black or brown person to walk through the door. Or maybe they think of men in white robes chanting around a blazing fire.
But they probably can’t think of a time when they’ve negatively discriminated against someone on the grounds of their race. Most people just don’t see themselves as racist. They don’t see how their race has positively affected them. And as a consequence, they have a very real difficulty identifying racism in others.
People’s touchiness on this subject should not be underestimated.
When I say “people,” by the way, I largely – but not exclusively – mean white people. Racism is much more than the hurtful prejudice of a marginal few. It is also the inherited structural and political inequality by race in communities of color. We do not live in a post-racial America. Race determines not just where someone lives, it also affects the very air we breathe.
It is distressing that the question – is a presidential candidate a racist? – even needs to be asked in 2016. But this is not a normal election. Donald J. Trump is not a normal candidate. And in light of his behavior, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves whether the party of Lincoln just nominated a racist to be president. And then, further, what we are going to do about it.
It would be one thing if Mr. Trump made just a few racially insensitive remarks. But when you look at Mr. Trump’s record, it becomes clear that he is not simply saying things he doesn’t really believe to rile up voters. Mr. Trump has a long history of racism. It is part and parcel of his character, personality, and business career.
Forget, for a moment, everything that has occurred during the most recent campaign.
Let’s go back to 1973 to the very first time Mr. Trump appeared on the front pages of The New York Times. It wasn’t to announce the latest acquisition from the young real estate developer. It wasn’t to tout the success of the up–and-coming billionaire.
On Oct. 16, 1973, the New York Times ran a story about a lawsuit filed by Richard Nixon’s Department of Justice alleging that the Trump Management Cooperation, led by Mr. Trump and his father, Fred Trump, had violated the Fair Housing Act by implementing discriminatory policies against blacks, including those serving in the military.
The Nixon DoJ – hardly a bastion of civil rights – proved discrimination by dispatching blacks as “testers” to Trump apartment buildings to inquire about vacancies, and white “testers” were sent soon after. After inquiring, one black woman was told that nothing was available. A short time later, a white woman who made the same request was shown two apartments for immediate rental.
Federal investigators also gathered evidence that rental applications from black people were coded with “No. 9” and “C” for “colored.” A former building superintendent testified that the Trumps wanted to rent only to “Jews and executives,” and not to blacks.
Mr. Trump’s pattern and practice of racism continued in subsequent decades.
In 1989, Mr. Trump ran an ad in a New York City newspaper demanding the death penalty for four black teenagers and one Latino teenager – the “Central Park Five” – who were wrongly accused of attacking and raping a jogger. The case has been characterized as a modern-day lynching, and the city paid $41 million in a settlement to the teens. After receiving intense criticism, Mr. Trump insisted his ad had nothing to do with race, and responded to the settlement in thinly veiled language: “They walked away with $41 million and the best thing they had going for them was they were wilding in other parts of the park, beating the hell out of people.”
In 1991, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, John O’Donnell, quoted Trump’s criticism of a black accountant: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.” Trump initially denied making the remarks. But he later said in a 1997 Playboy interview that “the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true.”
Fast forward to 2005, when Mr. Trump lamented that he “wasn’t particularly happy” with the most recent season of The Apprentice. To boost ratings, Mr. Trump floated the prospect of racially segregated teams. Or, in his words, “an idea that is fairly controversial – creating a team of successful African Americans versus a team of successful whites.”
And then, in 2011, Mr. Trump played a significant role in the Birther Movement – a movement based on the false idea that the country’s first black president was not born in the US. The Birther Movement had a lot to do with Barack Obama’s identity – his “erudition, his ivy-league-ness, his urbanity, his citizen-of-the-worldness, his foreign-sounding name, his respect for the authority of reason and science, his ‘aristocratic’ ‘aloofness’, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote. But it is impossible to miss the racism informing Mr. Trump’s accusations.
In fact, a recent psychological study explored the relationship between racism and the birther movement and found a strong connection between the two: “Whites higher in prejudice rated Obama as less American, and as performing more poorly as president.”
Taken individually, it’s possible that none of these incidents would be sufficient to levy a charge of racism. Perhaps Mr. Trump was merely misconstrued. Perhaps Mr. Trump misspoke.
And yet, here we have Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump’s campaign has openly courted racists – retweeting Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists with alarming frequency and alacrity. He refers to Elizabeth Warren, who has Native American ancestors, as “Pocahontas.” He argued that a federal judge couldn’t preside over a lawsuit involving Trump University because of his ethnicity. He has singled out people of color who have attended his campaign events – “Look at my African American over here.” He blames entire communities for any crime committed by one of its members – pledging to “build a wall” on the southern border of the US and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, and ban immigration to the US from Muslim countries until we can “figure out what is going on.”
In politics, as in life, calling anyone a racist is a big deal. But acknowledging the seriousness of the charge does not justify paralysis in response to real, actual racism. The notion that “racism is a word that should be reserved for very, very evil people” makes it impossible to talk about the vast majority of actually existing racism. It ignores the fact that racism causes real problems. That racism has an effect on real people. That racism actually occurs, and with frequency.
You cannot divorce Mr. Trump’s current campaign from his checkered history. Mr. Trump’s life and career are reflective of a man who is not simply a “racial opportunist” or someone who is “perpetuating racial prejudice.” As Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, “Here we have a man who for more than four decades has been repeatedly associated with racial discrimination or bigoted comments about minorities, some of them made on television for all to see.”
We have no excuse, then, to not call Mr. Trump’s actions and words for what they are: racist. And further, we have no reason to justify those actions as the product of an innocent mistake or poor choice of words. They are the result of the unapologetic and unabashed racism of the actor.
One more important point. I began this article by noting that people often have difficulty identifying racism in others. At the root of the problem, though, is this: the unwillingness (or inability) to identify racism in ourselves. While I don’t pretend to be a saint – we are all subject to the whims of our own prejudices, be they conscious or subconscious – let me give you a hand with this task.
It’s perfectly acceptable to not want to vote for Hillary Clinton, or any other candidate with whom you substantively disagree. But voting for Trump simply because he has “Republican” next to his name, or out of hatred for the Democratic Party writ large, is wrong.
If you believe that Donald Trump is fit to be our next president, recognize that you are condoning his unapologetic racism and supporting those beliefs.
And if you are still okay with that, even after knowing everything he has said to offend virtually every ethnic group in America, then you are probably a racist too. You are out of place in our society. And you are just as worthy of scorn and contempt.
Featured Image Credit: Altamore Unabashed