We’ve all heard commentators and pundits through the years claim that what the United States needs is “an honest conversation about race.” But whenever those conversations happen, they quickly devolve into accusations of racism — a word with a definition that has expanded to cover any expression that veers from left-wing dogma on the issue.
Racism — the belief that an entire race of people is inherently inferior, or superior, to another race of people — is abhorrent. That is the kind of racism represented by the white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, drawing crowds of counterprotesters, leading to violent confrontations and, eventually, to a murderous assault with a vehicle and a tragic helicopter accident.
By contrast, simply disagreeing with affirmative action programs, or supporting a crackdown on crime, or wanting to rein in government spending on domestic programs or opposing sanctuary cities is not racism. You can argue that these positions are wrong, but they are not inherently racist.
When the news broke about the Charlottesville violence, everyone knew what was coming next. The Blame Trump Brigade, always at the ready, would spring forth, predictable as April dandelions. Every Republican president or presidential candidate is accused of racist pandering or catering to white resentment. It’s the go-to move from the left and many in the media. With President Donald Trump, the charge has reached frenzied heights of absurdity.
Trump didn’t respond on Saturday within the prescribed time limit, and he then didn’t use the right words, critics said. But if his detractors were being honest, they would admit that if Trump had read a statement written by them, saying exactly what they wanted — as he basically did Monday — they would still lay the events at his feet.
When we try to have conversations about race that veer from the approved talking points, conservatives are accused of using “dog whistles” — words or phrases designed to appeal to white bigotry. I had to look up some websites to find examples, because I missed dog-whistle class.
Among common dog whistles allegedly used by Republicans are: “states’ rights,” apparently designed to oppose federal civil rights initiatives; “law and order,” a secret signal to crack down on low-income or minority neighborhoods; and “family values,” a phrase determined by the left to be an attack on gays and lesbians. I won’t, for instance, deny that the concept of states’ rights has been a rationale used in the past by people with ill intent, but the concept can be legitimate, too, say for issues such as education.
There are so many dog whistles that a whole book was written about the practice by University of California, Berkeley, law Prof. Ian Haney López, apparently to help the left decipher secret messages without the decoder rings distributed to the right.
I was visited last week by a professor of anthropology who is researching a book. He mentioned that he had, in his travels though the Midwest, encountered a handful of people who displayed the Confederate battle flag. He told me, with a sense of surprise, “They really don’t see it as a racist thing. They see it as a sign of independence.”
For the record, I understand why the Confederate flag is offensive, and I don’t think anyone should display it. No matter what else it once stood for, it stood for the right to own slaves. I agree with its removal from public buildings and grounds, along with other memorials that seem to celebrate a time when owning slaves was acceptable.
Further, I don’t agree with the idea of the Justice Department investigating affirmative action programs at universities under the theory that they might discriminate against whites. White people are doing fine in the United States. Whites haven’t suffered under affirmative action. But many on the left would define me as racist because I’m a Trump supporter — even though, like anyone who supports any president or candidate, I don’t support everything he says or does.
Unlike the people encountered by the anthropology professor, the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville over the weekend understood completely the offensive nature of the symbols they were fighting to maintain and proudly spouted their usual venom. There’s no apology for their hate.
But an honest conversation about race, if we could have it, would differentiate between the small, fringe groups of racists in this country and others who have no malice toward anyone but hold different points of view on various race-related issues.
An honest conversation about race might help the left understand that many of the people they call racists are not that at all, even if they don’t subscribe to all the standard liberal solutions. And it might help the right to better understand why some of their ambivalence or insensitivities — including some of the president’s remarks — are seen as offensive by many.
But with no such discussion allowed, everyone retreats to their corners, and the entrenched accusations continue and amplify, with no progress toward bridging the gulf that divides us.
Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.