The debates about police shootings, Confederate monuments and President Donald Trump’s assorted outbursts have all provoked accusations and denials of pervasive white racism. In a recent column reprinted in the Star Tribune, the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman argued that Trump’s positions show a “clear pattern” of racism because they do not differ from what a racist would say or do (“Signs of guilt by his own association,” Sept. 8).
Time and again, Chapman writes, Trump has attacked or shortchanged nonwhite groups — Mexicans, African-Americans and Muslims:
“It’s not entirely clear whether Trump is a privileged ignoramus whose life has blinded him to the perspective of nonwhites or a conscious bigot who regards various minorities as inferior. But it doesn’t really matter what’s in his heart. It’s enough that his public conduct is so consistent with outright racism.”
Concerning Trump’s supporters, Chapman opines that they are “fearful and resentful of blacks, Latinos and Muslims.” He concludes: “You don’t have to be a white racist to be satisfied with Trump’s presidency. But it certainly helps.”
By experience and temperament, Trump is grossly unqualified to be president. Like many Americans, including some of his supporters, I have repeatedly bemoaned his remarks about minorities. Like Colin Powell, I consider him a national disgrace. But unlike Chapman, I believe that, in modern America, accusations of racism usually are at best unhelpful in analyzing political events and at worst false or unproven, simplistic and demagogic.
There is no longer a consensus about the meaning of racism. Some think that it is racist to oppose affirmative action or to advocate middle-class values such as marrying before having babies. The fact that a greater proportion of African-Americans than of whites are arrested was cited by President Barack Obama as evidence of racism in the administration of justice. Coming from one of our most intelligent and articulate modern presidents, this elementary fallacy is impressive evidence that allegations of racism have an irresistible allure to those who wish to demonize and silence their political adversaries — like calling someone a “communist sympathizer” in the 1950s. If he’s a communist sympathizer or a racist, then of course his ideas are all wrong.
Consider, for example, the problem of police who shoot unarmed black men. No doubt some police deserve to be called racists. But the heavy emphasis on that narrative has led us to ignore some obvious questions. What percentage of police have ever killed a black man? In analogous circumstances, what percentage have killed a white man? Does the former class of cases receive disproportionate publicity? How often is the police shooter himself an African-American? In cases in which lethal force was improper, are there plausible alternatives to the “racist culture” narrative? For example, is the main problem police departments’ failure (and perhaps inability) to detect personality traits that make a candidate for the force too easily rattled in an emergency, or excessively angered by failure to obey his commands? Do police unions defend white police more vigorously than they defend black police? It is probably unfair to expect activists to raise these questions, but media pundits should raise them.
Whether most defenders of Confederate monuments are racists depends on how we define the term and how willing we are to speculate. I don’t think that hatred of blacks is the most clearly valid charge. Let us assume, if only for the sake of argument, that most of those who cherish the Confederate monuments have another motive. Having been excoriated repeatedly for the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, of which most living Southerners were not personally guilty, they cherish what they perceive as noblest in their ethnic heritage — the bravery of Confederate soldiers and the military genius and chivalrous bearing of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The need for communal self-esteem is a ubiquitous human trait, and, in its milder forms, it may well be beneficial.
But there is no need to decide the motivational issue. Regardless of their motives, those who honor Confederate heroes display a callous indifference to the reasonable feelings of black Americans, whose ancestors were slaves during the war in which Lee and his men fought to preserve slavery. Apart from the evil cause he served, Lee may have been admirable. But so, I gather, was Erwin Rommel.
Granted, the history of racial subjugation creates many line-drawing problems, but these are inherent in choosing which Americans to honor on our currency and with our statues and holidays. Besides, some of the line-drawing problems are illusory. Surely some African-American heroes are more worthy than some of the whites who have been honored. But it would be absurd to rename the Washington Monument. We rightly honor Washington and Jefferson because of their immense contribution to our national founding and ideals, not because of their minuscule contribution to slavery by owning slaves.
One might define racism as gross indifference to the feelings or well-being of another ethnic group. That is not a sin of which only right-wing whites can be guilty. Before St. Peter, who sees through phony virtue-signaling, very few individuals or ethnic groups could escape a conviction of at least second-degree indifference to the suffering of others, especially those outside their own echo chambers.
Trump may believe that all nonwhites are inferior to all whites, or he may care more about the feelings of whites, but there is a more plausible explanation of his outrageous remarks: He is a vulgar, hyperaggressive, populist wrecking ball who vilifies all those of any race whom he regards as obstacles to his ambitions. Like many politicians, his ideology is flexible. Minorities are overrepresented among his targets, but that is because he needs the support of those working-class whites who perceive that white progressives have contempt for their “deplorable” culture of “guns and religion” while ardently publicizing the virtues and suffering of blacks, Mexicans and Muslims.
After painting Trump as a racist, and going so far as to suggest — evidently seriously — that this may be why he admires the pale-faced Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chapman concedes that we cannot know for certain what is in Trump’s heart. However, “it’s enough that his public conduct is so consistent with outright racism.” This cryptic condemnation seems to refer to Trump’s policies rather than, or in addition to, his inflammatory remarks. Are outright racists campaigning for charter schools in order to improve the educational opportunities of poor black children? Is opposition to sanctuary cities a sign of “outright racism”? Trump’s indiscriminate support of accused police officers of both races is indefensible, but so is the rush to judgment of black activists.
My guess is that most of Trump’s voters were motivated less by dislike of law-abiding minorities than by hostility to the identity politics practiced by mostly white progressives. Be that as it may, when we criticize Trump and his supporters, it should be because they are wrong, whether or not they are racists. That epithet adds nothing to the case. Worse than that, it only serves to encourage demagogues of all political complexions.
David P. Bryden is the Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty and Bennett Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Minnesota.