One of the lessons that the history of racism in America teaches us is that if you ignore it, racism does not go away. This has been true for centuries, but has again been brought into stark relief during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and again in the events in Charlottesville over the weekend. A related point is that since the gains that African Americans and other groups made during the Civil Rights era, a narrative that racism is over has become widely accepted among white Americans-and almost nobody else. This narrative became more deeply entrenched during the Obama presidency as many whites saw the election of an African American president as proof that racism in America was over.
This story that many white people tell themselves has made it easier for many of us to ignore the racism around us, and therefore made it easier for an ambitious and bigoted con man like Donald Trump to exploit it. While some Americans were feeling good that we had an African American president, for eight years racism was growing stronger, and adapting to 21st century technologies all around us. Activist movements like Black Lives Matter as well as many policy makers, intellectuals, activists and ordinary Americans sought to address the ongoing problem of racism, but many white people continued to choose to ignore it and hope for the best.
One of the results of this was that Donald Trump’s presidency, which drew on white supremacist and anti-Semitic sentiment almost from the very beginning of his campaign, was never fully recognized for what it was. Well into fall of 2016, it was possible to find major media outlets hosting talk shows or roundtables discussing the question of whether or not Donald Trump is a racist. Anybody who hadn’t figured out that he was a racist by last fall was either willfully ignorant or, frankly, an idiot.
After the election, a similar, an equally inane, debate emerged in some quarters, reading whether or not the 60 million or so Americans who voted for Donald Trump were all racists. The argument against this notion seemed to be that 60 million is a lot of racists. The problem with this position is that is suggests that racism is something like a rare disease that some small portion of the population carries. Unfortunately, racism is probably better understood as a widespread trait that many, perhaps most, people have in varying degrees. Many white Trump supporters voted for Trump not because he is a racist, but because he offered economic hope to lower income voters, or lower taxes to upper income voters. However, overlooking, or not wanting to see racism, because you are more focused on your economic interests is pretty much the definition of racism.
This has led us to where we are today. A large rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis ends with an act of terror by one of them aimed at peaceful demonstrators. As a standalone incident, this is horrific, but it is very far from a standalone incident. The killing in Virginia was first met by a Trump Tweet about violence on many sides-a barely coded wink to the white supremacists and anti-Semites, followed by a White House statement that was distinctly not made by the President himself and finally, days later, a statement by the President condemning the racists.
Looking at this in the bigger picture, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the white supremacist president is not going to strongly criticize the white supremacist voters who represent his most loyal base of support and that this will contribute to a climate where these racists feel increasingly empowered, not just to march and demonstrate, but to commit acts of violence against nonwhite Americans.
In recent years, events of this kind have been met by the same statements from politicians and the same calls for a national dialog on race, but things are different now. Many of the politicians who are making eloquent, even powerful, statements about the events in Charlottesville, knowingly supported a white supremacist for President. Politicians who supported Trump for President should either publicly recognize their lack of concern about racism last November and break with the President immediately or keep their empty words to themselves. Those who supported Trump last fall and who make pious statements about racism now before going back to relative silence in the face of this racist administration are either cowards or hypocrites. In many cases they are both.
These are sad days for the United States. A petulant, willfully ignorant, bigoted man-child has encouraged the most bigoted, ugliest, vulgar and intolerant among us to wave their racist flag high, knowing they have support from the White House. It is significant that the violence in Charlottesville originated as citizens gathered to defend a statue celebrating a traitorous regime that sought to destroy the union more than 150 years ago. If the US survives this current crisis, it is likely that is how historians will view the Trump administration as well.
Photo: cc/ Eden, Janine and Jim