Editor’s note: On Jan. 15, this editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, having first been published by its sister paper the Toledo Blade. In response, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the newsroom union, submitted a letter to the editor from 150 newsroom employees. It was not accepted for publication in the paper but appeared on the Guild’s website. The Star Tribune is reprinting both items; to read the Guild letter, click here.
Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism. The charge is pernicious. The accuser doesn’t need to prove it. It simply hangs over the accused like a great human stain.
It has become not a descriptive term for a person who believes in the superiority of one race over another, but a term of malice and libel — almost beyond refutation, as the words “communist” or “communist sympathizer” were in the 1950s.
Moreover, the accuser somehow covers himself in an immunity of superiority. If I call you a racist, I probably will not be called one. And, finally, having chosen the ultimate epithet, I have dodged the obligation to converse or build.
If Donald Trump is called a racist for saying some nations are “shithole countries,” does that help pass a “Dreamers” bill to keep gifted young people in this nation — people who have something to give the United States and are undocumented only because they were brought here by their parents illegally?
That’s the goal, is it not? To save the Dreamers? That’s what the White House meeting last week was about. It’s what the whole week was about, until we went down the “racist” rabbit hole.
We were having an immigration debate. To the president, it is a reasonable goal, and one that most Americans would agree upon, to want to naturalize more people based on “merit.” We want more people who can contribute to our culture and economy, and they tend to come from stable nations.
If the president had used the world “hellhole” instead, would that have been racist?
If he had used the word “failed states,” would that have been racist?
But there are nations that are hellholes in this world. And there are failed states. It is not racist to say that this country cannot take only the worst people from the worst places and that we want some of the best people from the best places, many of which are inhabited by people of color. That’s not racism, it is reason.
Yes, we should take in unskilled refugees. We also want more Indian Ph.D.s and engineers.
If Sen. Dick Durbin wants to disagree about placing merit at the center of our immigration policies, if he wants to take an unlimited number of unemployed and unemployable people because, after all, that’s what most Poles and Irish were called in the 1900s, let him say that. And let Mr. Durbin and the president debate two concepts of American immigration policy honorably and finally find a middle ground where there is agreement and common purpose.
But, when we have a chance to reform the immigration system, and save the Dreamers, and find common ground, let us not get distracted by another cudgel to use against the president. Calling the president a racist helps no one — it is simply another way (the Russia and instability cards having been played unsuccessfully) to attempt to delegitimize a legitimately elected president.
Did the president use a crudity in a private meeting? He says he did not. No one who was there has said he did on the record. But if he did, so what? So what? America today is a sadly crass place where many of us use vulgar, corrosive language we ought not use in private and work conversations. How many of us would like to see and share a transcript of everything we have said in private conversations or at work?
And how many presidents have said crass things in the Oval Office in private meetings? Think of Kennedy, Clinton and Nixon, to name three.
If the president is wrong on immigration — on merit, on finding a balance between skilled and unskilled immigrants, on chain migration, on the lottery — let his opponents defeat him on these points, and not by calling him a racist. If he is to be removed from office, let the voters do it based on his total performance — temperament as well as accomplishment — in 2020. Simply calling him an agent of the Russians, a nutcase or a racist is a cowardly way to fight.
We need to confine the word “racist” to people like Bull Connor and Dylann Roof. For if every person who speaks inelegantly, or from a position of privilege, or ignorance, or expresses an idea we dislike, or happens to be a white male, is a racist, the term is devoid of meaning.
We have to stop calling each other names in this country and battle each other with ideas and issues, not slanders.