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Monday, January 15, 2018


Well, we have now endured three days of intense, thoughtful discussion of the urgent question, “Is Donald Trump a racist?”  This very quickly metastasized into the question, “Are Trump’s supporters racists?” and the subordinate question, “Are Trump’s policies racist?”  Trump has announced that he is not a racist, but for some reason that statement has not been considered dispositive, so I suppose I have a certain responsibility as a blogger to weigh in.

My first problem is that everyone engaged in this discussion speaks or writes as though being a racist were a psychological trait, either inherited, like perfect pitch, or acquired, like a love of oysters.  People who have the trait racist are said to be prejudiced, which means literally that they prejudge others, in advance of getting to know them, solely on the basis of their skin color and other associated physical characteristics.  One can, of course, be prejudiced in favor as well as against, but nobody seems to think it is a bad thing to be prejudiced in favor.  I am, for example, unthinkingly inclined to view with approbation persons who speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences.  Is this disgraceful or blameworthy?  Well, perhaps, inasmuch as it probably inclines me to undervalue the opinions of what Gramsci would have called organic intellectuals.

Racism is talked about as a trait that can be difficult to ascertain, even for the person who is said to possess it.  So we are all enjoined to examine ourselves for elusive signs of it, rather like seventeenth century Protestants who wrote spiritual diaries in an effort to suss out signs of election or damnation.

Now, all of this is simply nonsense.  What is more, it is seriously counterproductive nonsense.  So let me offer a few observations designed to change the discussion somewhat.  To keep this to a manageable length, I am going to rely on things I have written and published, most notably in my book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, archived under the title “Black Studies Book” at  People of African origin were brought forcibly to this country as prisoners for the purpose of extracting from them hard physical labor, first in agriculture and later in virtually every branch of production and personal service.  As my old colleague in Afro-American Studies, John Bracey, remarked one day in our first year doctoral seminar when I was going on about the racist prejudice of the slave owners, “Bob, the settlers did not come to this country, look around, and then say, ‘this is a beautiful and fertile land. It has everything we need except for some Black people to hate.  Let’s get some and bring them here so that we can discriminate against them.’”  Black people, like white indentured servants, were brought to these shores to work so that those who brought them could get rich, as indeed some of them did.  Over a period of a century and more, the status of Black prisoners was transformed into hereditary chattel slavery while the status of White indentured servants was transformed into legally free citizenship.

The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their horses, cattle, or shoes.  Since the slaves were, in fact if not in law, persons, some slave owners developed human sentiments about them, both positive and negative, but that in no way altered the legal status of the slaves as things.  The slaves did not want to be liked.  They wanted to be free.

After the emancipation of the slaves, an elaborate structure of law and custom was erected for the purpose of extracting cheap labor from the Freedmen and Freedwomen while denying them any political power.  A century and a half of dangerous and painful struggle by Black men and women somewhat, but by no means fully, challenged those laws and customs.  It is still the case today that the descendants of the slaves, as well as many others who look like them physically, are paid less for their work, are educated in inferior schools, are denied equal access to the rungs of the steep job ladder that characterizes America’s unequal economy and society.

It is of little interest or significance whether White people like Black people in America, and it certainly makes no difference how Donald Trump feels about Black People.  What is of interest and significance is that Black people are systematically treated less well than White people in America, and that the people Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet and senior Administrative offices are doing everything in their power to make that unequal treatment worse as fast as they can.  Leaving entirely to one side the fact that he presides over the federal justice system in America, could any self-respecting person, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Green, or Puce care what Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III feels about him or her?

It is instructive to compare the subject of racism with sexism.  For at least as long as there have been historical records, women have been systematically treated less well than men in virtually all walks of life.  Until quite recently, women have been excluded by law and custom from every aspect of social, economic and political life that carries with it wealth or power or social honor:  from politics, from the military, from business, from the Academy, from law, from medicine [at least since medicine was actually able to do something about illness.]  But the men carrying out and benefiting from this exclusion have mothers, wives, daughters, mistresses, concubines.  No doubt some of them are woman-haters.  There is no accounting for taste.  But the second class status of women is not a consequence of animus, and it is not sustained, even today, by a personality trait called sexism

So it does not matter what Donald Trump feels in his heart [assuming he has one.]  It only matters how people of color are treated.  Black people can live with the fact that White cops hate them, just so long as those cops don’t gun the[RW1] m down.


s. wallerstein said...

I think that you put your finger on the problem with so many contemporary "liberal" discussions about racism, with your analogy to 17th century Puritanism.

Puritanism has marked U.S. culture more than most would dare to admit, and on the left many people seem to basically be puritans, more concerned with the purity of the soul, a soul without sinful thoughts (racist or sexist or homophobic thoughts today) and above all, which utters no sinful (racist or sexist or homophobic) words.

Besides the obvious function of allowing people to feel "holier than thou" and to feel superior to the sinners, this has another function: dealing with social problems like racism costs money. Taxes will probably have to go up. Quality low cost social housing will have to be built, schools will have to be improved, cops will have to be retrained (with a bit of African-American studies, a bit of psychology, a bit of sociology), etc. etc.

It's much easier and above all, cheaper to hunt down sins (racist thoughts and racist language) than it is to deal with social problems.

LFC said...

I tend to agree that racism is primarily a structural or systemic (pick whichever word you prefer) problem.

However, it seems odd to imply that people's personal views on race, sometimes indistinguishable in the past from ideological commitments, are unimportant and/or inconsequential. After all, Alexander Stephens' famous or, rather, infamous 'cornerstone' speech of 1861 declared of the Confederacy that "its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition." And notions of white supremacy persisted, of course, after slavery ended.

So while it may not matter what Trump's own personal feelings are (though I think it probably does), it does matter that a lot of white Americans once openly espoused the doctrine of white supremacy and that the legacies of that doctrine and its institutional expressions persist.

Lastly, as I've already suggested, I think the post sets up something of a straw man in suggesting that racism is equivalent to hatred. When reporters ask Trump "are you a racist?" they are not asking "do you, Donald Trump, hate individual black people?" Rather, they are asking, in effect, "Do you think that whiteness is inherently superior to blackness?" (or something along that line). Now in either case, Trump's answer is going to be "no," but I think it's important to be clear on what the question is actually asking.

LFC said...

correction; add the italicized words:

I think the post sets up something of a straw man in suggesting that 'racism', as the word is used in journalism or in current conversation, is equivalent to hatred.

Charles Pigden said...

Aren’t you ignoring the problem of micro-injustices and micro-aggressions that are often founded on (sometimes unconscious) sentiments of hostility or feelings of superiority? Imagine an America where private gun ownership has been largely eliminated and the police only carried fire-arms for special operations. So the police are not gunning down a higher proportion of black people than white people since they are not gunning down enough people for the casualty rate to be statistically significant. . Nonetheless racist attitudes on the part of the police persist. Black people get stopped more times, hassled more times, arrested more times and are continually subjected to a regime of thinly veiled discourtesy. (Veiled because the police have learned not to do anything too overt than could be caught on camera.) Even if (per impossibile) this did not result in higher conviction-rates and tougher sentences, it is still a set of mickles that might end up making quite a muckle. Living a life where you are subject continually to thinly veiled hostility or even the *threat* of such hostility tends to take a psychological toll. So even if we accept that histories and structures are more important than the states of peoples’ souls, it does not follow that the states of people’s souls are not important.

Of course this does not detract from your main point. Whatever he feels in what passes for a heart, Trump is a racist because he appeals to racist attitudes and enacts racist policies.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

It seems to me, that most individuals use "racist" to refer to an individual's mental state or beliefs, whereas "white supremacy" better describes how society is structured. Do you, Professor, think making this distinction is fruitful (at least, intellectually, if not politically)?

Anonymous said...

Research on microagression indicates that a microapology issued by the microperpetrator of a microagression is associated with satisfactory micro-outcomes for the microaggrieved individual.

Jerry Fresia said...

I heard an interview recently with psychoanalyst Justin A. Frank (famous for his "On the Couch" books featuring first Bush, then Obama, and he is writing one now about Trump) who said the following- or words to the effect (it's just from my memory):

"Trump doesn't give a shit enough about people of color to be a racist. All he cares about is himself and doing/saying X, Y, or Z to make more money. His shithole comment was intentional and consciously crafted for his base." Interesting. I think Bracey might agree. Racism has to do with power, not prejudice as such. However, I think Charles Pigden points add an important dimension as well.

Ed Barreras said...

If anyone didn’t see the recently-released letter the FBI sent to M.L.K. in 1968, informing him they had tapes of him committing extramarital affairs and pressuring him to commit squicide, it is worth a look. The letter was sent anonymously by FBI Intelligence Chief William Sullivan (whom the New York Times described as “a liberal Democrat”), and is a testament to the psychotic hatred for African-Americans that prevailed, evidently, even among educated law enforcement officials back then. King is called as an “animal,” “moronic,” “filthy,” “evil,” a “fraud” worse than any White fraud, etc. (He was also, of course, thought to be a communist.)

That was fifty years ago. We’ve done a good job enculturating those attitudes out since then, but a half-century just isn’t enough time for a deeply rooted racial hierarchy such as the one we’ve had to entirely disappear. Everyone knows this. And if anyone thinks the current grifter in the White House didn’t ride a wave of backlash against the progress we’ve made, they’re fooling themselves.

Unknown said...

Maybe in movies, 'thought police' makes sense. On this planet, for human beings with our limited capability to see into each others minds, it would seem sensible to focus on what people say and do.

So trying to define if a person is 'racist' is very difficult. Who can hold their hand up and say "In my life I have never had a hateful thought about someone with racial overtones". Of course, you might have 'caught yourself' and corrected yourself. I do it every day driving when, I have nasty thoughts about some ... driver only to discover often they merely lack a moment's awareness or generally lack competence. That is, they are human and also within a society that lets anyone behind the wheel of a car. Recently my 95 mother-in-law stopped driving, so it is safer now to drive in Auckland, New Zealand.

Notwithstanding the above, public figures do and say many things. The actions are easier to contemplate, but of course finding a common interpretation is always complex. But, even if difficult, it seems the best place to start and certainly where people should focus on. The systemic inequality built into the society seems often to be forgotten behind the latest scandal or public outcry about very little. Anyone noticed the income equality that 50 years of fascist economics has introduced to Western societies? Where is the public discussion on that?

But also, what people say is important. It gives some indication of how they might think. The challenge with Trump is that what he says, may, be a quite deliberate method to distract the world from what he does. This racist debate will rage on for a few weeks, but will it really matter to what he does in the future. Not likely, but he has managed to create a weeks free thinking time for himself and the team as the media go ballistic on trying to answer what is, in the end, an arbitrary question (by arbitrary, I mean everyone sets their own level and makes their own arbitrary distinction).

So I will listen to my wife and react when she offers some pearls of wisdom, make my own interpretations, and hopefully respond, or not, with some skill. But I don't think it is that pragmatic for the media and planet to get into a flurry about a few words from a person that everyone knows is deliberately provocative.

Timothy Beneke said...

Our default folk theoretical ways of thinking about racism tend to be rather essentialist. Social psychologists tend to disaggregate racism into stereotyping – forming implicit beliefs about a group; prejudice, which is about negative emotion towards them; and discrimination, which is about behavioral harm. It is likely that that people learn stereotypes much as they learn a language, so common negative stereotypes about groups are in everyone’s heads. And most of us are very uncomfortable with them. Non- or anti-racist people are able to recognize and suppress stereotypes so that they do not affect behavior.

There is a strong impulse, I think partially driven by guilt or discomfort about one’s own stereotypes or emotions, not to call Trump’s followers “racists”; this impulse in the media is partly driven by economic concerns – we must not insult some 35% of the populace. And we must not insult those nice people who may support Trump. But: the fact remains indisputable that Trump has said and done many racist things. Anyone who supports Trump is willing to tolerate racist behavior in the most powerful person in the world. His supporters are overwhelmingly white. And one key to his appeal is his stereotyping and trashing of Latinos, Muslims, and more recently Africans – not to mention his birtherism. Trump’s supporters mostly don’t support Trump despite his racist appeals, but because of it.

People who support racist politicians are behaving in a racist way. Trump would not be president without his racist appeals. His supporters are racist enough to elect him president – that, for me, is racist enough to call them racists.

Mohan Matthen said...

The point I take from RPW's post is that racism is any, attitude that leads a person to treat members of a particular race badly. Someone in 1950 might, for instance, have thought that Chinese people were opportune targets of economic exploitation, and might have seized the opportunity to pay them less, even while believing them to be intellectually and morally equal to everybody else. That would have been racism according to RPW, as I understand him. If we take this consequence-based definition, then Trump is a racist simply because he empowers the mistreatment of non-white people. But so also was Lyndon Johnson because he thought it fine to delay the rectification of racial injustice in order to preserve political peace. An interesting position, even if it does not encourage the deeper investigation of racialist social attitudes in the US.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The charge of "racism" is solely a Masonic/Marxist agitprop term. It is about deracination which is genocide, albeit soft genocide. It has no bearing whatsoever. Marxism was first called International Socialism because it dealt with nation-killing.

It is not that "Cops hate black people", it is that the blacks don't like and are prejudiced towards cops since they don't obey them. "Stop". How hard is it to stop. Blacks do commit more crime, per percentage, than whites do. Their race is quite dysfunctional; it has nothing to with racism. Asians don't cause any trouble--and they make no trouble.

Anybody that uses the term "racist" is engaging in genocide. The Many Forms of Genocide: Hard and Soft