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 box.net. 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.