To many, it would seem to fall transparently under this definition of racist when President Trump, irritated with the leftist critiques of America from four Democratic congresswomen of color, suggests that they return to their native countries. Three, for the record, were born in the United States, and the other is a longtime citizen. Many of us hear this attack as saying that the four embody a fundamental otherness, and their true membership as “one of us” is fragile and even cancelable. But Republicans have taken umbrage at being called racist for supporting such rhetoric.
Peter Beinart: By Republican standards, almost nothing is racist
One response is that these Republicans are more offended at being called racist than at being racist. But this is oversimplified in view of how the word racist has come to figure in our language—Republican Trump supporters’ state of mind is, in its way, more layered than that. They are operating upon the unusual complexities that the word racist has accreted, in a way that allows them to at least pretend they are not racist, and possibly genuinely believe that they are not.
Make no mistake—all evidence, listed elsewhere too exhaustively to bear my repeating it here, confirms that the president is a bigot. The question is whether Trump in his recent statements is expressing that bigotry as baldly as many suppose. People claiming that Trump said nothing racist may not be exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer on questions of sociology, and Trump himself is, on that score, a plastic spoon. But the realities of the word racist lend Trump and people like him two strategic, and maybe even cognitive, outs.
One is that racist carries baggage beyond its dictionary meaning. To be a racist is considered not just a matter of bland categorization but of evil, a charge only somewhat less damning than being called a pedophile, as chilling a prospect in modern American life as being tarred as a communist was in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
As such, Trump’s refusal to apologize simply because so many of his supporters agree with him, callow as it seems, has a certain coherence. If the power of the word racist is as much in its moral sanction as in its definition, then if a critical mass of people sees no moral sanction in one’s statements, then one may conclude one is not being a racist at all.
Surely, though, what is moral is not that which is popular. According to that logic, slavery was correct in the days of yore because few questioned it. Can’t Trump see that to tell people of color to “go home” is a manifestation of exactly the disparagement of people on the basis of race that the definition entails?
However, here we run into a problem larger than Trump and his pals—that racist has morphed to refer to animus beyond the conscious and deliberate. A great deal of the race debate since the 1960s has revolved around a quest to teach Mr. and Mrs. America that racism can be covert, and can be as harmful as the old-school kind. The black criminal, lent less empathy and sympathy by whites, gets a longer sentence than a white one does for the same crime. The black couple, less familiar and seemingly less trustworthy to a nonblack dealer, gets a lesser car loan than a white couple with the same income and credit record.