What does it take to be racist in America?

Political discourse always has its strange aspects, whether one finds it in the United States or elsewhere. Europeans will insist they have nothing like American racism, but then employ all the same arguments as American racists do against immigrants. Americans will declare they don’t have a racist bone in their body in the same breath as they recite theories of racial inferiority. You don’t need an education in the academic understanding of white supremacy to see through that one, but if we take people at their word then large numbers of Americans look downright slow. In this case, slowness pays. So long as we can tell ourselves that reasonable people disagree, no matter how contrived a disagreement we must construct, we need not consider what responsibility we might have for things that happen to real people in the real world.

For today’s specifics, I refer you to Hillary Clinton. I will not pretend to lacking a partisan interest here. Nobody who reads this blog for long would have any trouble figuring out my politics. Regardless of that, Clinton said this:

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.

The political press termed this a gaffe, which they sometimes say happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth. They haven’t taken much interest in whether or not Clinton did tell the truth, though. Let’s unpack the claims, focusing on the racial ones. I don’t know if I have the stomach just now to go into the sexism or homophobia too.

What do Trump supporters think of other races?

Nearly half of Trump’s supporters described African Americans as more “violent” than whites. The same proportion described African Americans as more “criminal” than whites, while 40 percent described them as more “lazy” than whites.

African Americans, distinguished from others only by their ascribed race, appear more violent, more criminal, and more lazy to at least a large contingent of Trump supporters. Racism, we all agree, means something like harboring the believe that human races have morally meaningful distinctions. We have real races, not just social categories, and they matter. Membership in one group makes you better than membership in another. Unless these same people think that greater propensities for violence, criminality, and laziness make for positive character traits, we have racism here.

Honestly demands we also admit that other Americans feel the same way:

In smaller, but still significant, numbers, Clinton backers also viewed blacks more critically than whites with regard to certain personality traits. Nearly one-third of Clinton supporters described blacks as more “violent” and “criminal” than whites, and one-quarter described them as more “lazy” than whites.

Any more than zero ought to trouble us, but the United States has never managed such a decent populace as that. If we had, the course of our history would have run on radically different tracks. But the difference between a quarter to a third and a third to forty or fifty percent does say something. So does the overwhelming unpopularity of candidate Trump with the non-white electorate. If these people, whoever they support, don’t count as racists then nobody can.

Islamophobic? Islamophobia generally means harboring negative opinions about both the religion of Islam and the behavior of Muslim adherents. Trump has that all wrapped up. Almost 60% hold “unfavorable” views of Islam, making it less popular than atheism. Almost 80% believe Islam more likely to encourage violence toward women than other religions, and nearly the same think that for homosexuals like your author too. I’d say that counts as pretty negative.

Both the Islamophobia and the racism count toward xenophobia, but let’s also note that Trump’s supporters favor a man who proclaimed immigrants from Latin America murderers and rapists. He wants a full ban on Muslims entering the country too. What more does it take?

I ask in earnest, Gentle Readers. How much does it take for white America to look in the mirror and realize that by our own most convenient definitions, those most alienated from the lived experience of minority Americans with injustice, we have a real, serious problem? If we believe in the things that we say we do, that we deplore racism, that people of all creeds, colors, and backgrounds deserve at the absolute least an even shake in life, then why do we tell pollsters otherwise? Even our cherished premise that overt racism has no place in our discourse looks like nothing so much as a self-serving lie in the face of all of this. If we really believe that, then why do so many of us seem bent on voting for a white nationalist candidate?

I do not think my fellow white Americans fools or dupes. I believe they, just like anybody else, understand their interests and values. They choose their candidates accordingly. The most recent polling I could find with a racial breakdown showed people who look like me preferring for Donald Trump 51-42. Most of us still believe, as we always have, that we live in a white man’s country. Others might exist in it with us, but do so at our sufferance and subject to whatever indignities we care to heap upon them. It’s not all of us, and not all of us to the same degree even among those counted, but it’s enough.

This held true in 1790, 1860, 1876, 1980, and keeps on holding true in 2016. The conviction has withstood a civil war, vast social movements, waves of immigration, and all that two centuries could throw at it. I don’t know what revolution it will take to undo something so foundational to who we are. The next time we care to pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery after only two hundred fifty years and Jim Crow after a century, we ought to look at what we left virtually untouched through all that. That, more than anything, is what we truly believe in. We lie to ourselves about the rest. That’s what it really takes to be a racist in America.

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