Unfortunately, This Is Our National Conversation on Race

For many years whenever there is a racially charged incident-a shooting of an African American youth by a police officer, violence between racial groups in cities like New York or Los Angeles, racially tinged events on college campuses or any of the myriad other events involving race in America-politicians, public intellectuals and even religious leaders call for an honest conversation about race in America. Those calls go unheeded, not least because nobody knows for certain that that conversation would look like.

Depressingly, however, we are having that conversation now in this presidential campaign. Race has, of course, been the subtext of many presidential campaigns, and in a very real way, of much of American political discourse for centuries. However, by placing race, more accurately racial intolerance and bigotry, at the center of his campaign Donald Trump has forced us all to have a conversation about race, although not always the one we would have liked.

The conversation that we have been led into by Trump’s ugly rhetoric is not one where thoughtful people engage in a frank discussion of what racism in the 21st century looks like, how to productively wrestle with our own biases or understand the lasting impact of bigotry and prejudice. Instead it is one where one side, sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally, yells out “Mexicans are rapists,” “African Americans have too much power;” “Muslims are all terrorists trying to kill us;” “Jews control politics through their money;” “build a wall,” “don’t let those people in;” “you better watch those people closely,” “America should be for white Christians.” The rest of America, for its part, scrambles to respond to this and spends most of its energy trying to express anger, disappointment and bewilderment at the overt racism that has moved into center state of our political life for the first time in at least a generation.

Perversely, for many months now, the conversation about race has included an examination of the question of whether or not Donald Trump is racist. It is appalling that after months of his words and Tweets, listening to his core campaign messages and observing his efforts to cozy up to, or at the least failure to distance himself from, white supremacists, we are still debating this. It is possible, even now to turn on the television and hear a group of pundits earnestly discussing whether or not Trump is racist. This is a bit like having an earnest discussion about whether or not the sun is hot.

Together, this tells us a fair amount about race in America. Most significantly, despite decades of being told of the progress we have made on racial matters and the all but official position of white America that racism is something that belongs to the past, the conversation on race that has grown out of the Trump campaign is a reminder that racism in its most crude and overt forms is still a very strong political force, and has a very strong appeal. Sadly, an American conversation about race still includes a large contingent of people standing in one corner yelling racial epithets.

This conversation also includes people of color seeking to draw attention to Trump’s racism as a way to examine the role of racism more broadly in the US. These voices, as usual, are drowned out by the racism on one side and the efforts of those who are so upset to see their vision of a post-racial, or at least less racist, America shattered that they waste time, among other things, in absurd debates about whether or not the ringleader of racist America, a man who has a racist record dating back to the beginning of his business career, is indeed a racist. 

In fairness, there have been times when the Trump inspired conversation about race has been explicit about the racism at the center of the GOP nominee’s campaigns. Last week, for example, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Nevada where in a clear, thorough and almost prosecutorial manner she explained her opponent’s racism and the extent of the ties between Trump and some of the most despicably bigoted elements in our society. It was a good speech and a valuable contribution to the conversation on race, but it didn’t change anything. Amazingly, the general media response was to treat Clinton’s well documented case against Trump, and Trump’s response that amounted to little more than that childish taunt “I know you are but what am I,” as a spat between two candidates, rather than to focus on the substance of Clinton’s speech.

The Trump campaign, and the reaction to it, is not the conversation about race many may have wanted, but it is one America has gotten. Although it is a nasty one that has frightened many people, shattered many illusions and offended almost everybody, it is also a reminder that we cannot talk about race in America unless we recognize the persistence of a primordial white supremacist vision that remains a cancer on our polity and our national character.