The Least Racist People We’ve Ever Interviewed

Writers of The Atlantic reflect on President Donald Trump’s claim that he is “the least racist” subject.

Donald Trump takes interviews during his candidacy for the presidency  (Darren Hauck / Reuters)

President Donald Trump briefly took questions from reporters at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday. A White House transcript shows the following exchange:

Reporter: What is your response to people who say you are a racist?
Trump: No, no, I’m not a racist.  I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you.

We at The Atlantic have a big room filled with experienced reporters. So we decided to ask some of them, Who was the least racist person you’ve ever interviewed? It is fair to say that none of the people identified as least-racist by our participants seemed to share many personality characteristics with the 45th president.

I don’t think of ‘racism’ as being a relative, scalar quality, like height or weight. Everyone has a certain racial identity; the luxury of being part of a majority racial group in any given country is not having to pay much attention to your racial ID. As a white person in America, the racial part of who I am is not at the forefront of my mind. But when I lived in Japan I could never be unaware of it.

So I don't know who the “least racist” person might be. Here’s one thing I do know: Claims that begin, “I’m no bigot, but …” “I’m no chauvinist, but …” or “I’m the least racist person you've ever met, but …” always mean, and are always universally understood to mean, the exact opposite. (Thought experiment: How many memorable quotations from Buddha, or Confucius, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or any of the “good” Popes begin, “I’m no racist, but …”?)

— James Fallows

Once in a great while, starting as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s and extending all the way into my time at The Atlantic, I have the occasion to interview very young children about their experiences––as a first grader at a charter school, say, or a promising talent in athletics or music or sports, or a member of family whose story bears on the news. One of them is likely the least racist person I’ve ever interviewed.

In time, they will encounter the poisonous ideology in many forms. A few will be indoctrinated into its most poisonous iterations. Most will absorb at least some racism, even without intending to do so, or despite their best efforts to remain free of it from cradle to grave. But whatever their race or nationality or religion, no child emerges from the womb racist, and most can speak their own thoughts before the concept stops seeming as absurd as it should. Against the discouraging persistence of racism, there is always promise in new humans being born every day. It is an opportunity for progress, and brings us closer to vanquishing a scourge.

— Conor Friedersdorf

On a visit to Lebanon a decade ago, I visited with an important ayatollah, a force in the Hezbollah movement. Everything he said was premised on a single belief: The entire world, headed by the United States, was engaged in a sinister conspiracy against Shia Muslims. Any word of disagreement from me elicited a pitying shake of the head from him, as if to say, “Either you are lying to me, or you are very, very stupid.” Shia versus everybody else: to him, that was as indelible a fact about the world as the law of gravity.

The propensity to divide the world between “us” and “them” seems hardwired into the human brain, like language or spirituality. The propensity to hate or despise or fear those who are different—that also seems hardwired. The thing that changes from person to person is how the line is drawn. If I ever do meet an interview subject for whom people are just people, I’ll be very curious: Is he or she a saint elevated above the rest of us? Or somebody missing a big part of what makes us human, for better or worse?

— David Frum

There are a lot of good contenders but the one I keep thinking of is Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, whom I spoke to for this piece on the future of museums. He’s someone who’s spent much of his career thinking about how to get people to see each other, and each other’s history, with more empathy and more interaction—to help them get to a place where they can cross barriers and engage with the most crucial issues in America.

— Sophie Gilbert

Risking the possibility of virtue-signaling (or some other sort of disreputable signaling), I would argue that the Dalai Lama is the least-racist person I’ve ever interviewed. One caveat: In my encounters with the Dalai Lama, I’ve only understood about half the things he’s said. He speaks oracularly (of course); his English isn’t very good (my Tibetan is worse); and he laughs frequently at jokes only he seems to understand.

All that said, years and years ago he told me, in response to a question about racial and tribal division, “There is no color, there are no tribes. There is only one humanity.” Coming from anyone else, I might have rolled my eyes (later, not in front of him). But the Dalai Lama’s sincerity could overwhelm a battalion of cynical reporters. I have no reason to believe that he doesn’t believe what he said that day.

As for the most racist (not that I was asked), this one is easy: Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen, the Mississippi Klan leader who organized the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, three of the great martyrs of the civil-rights movement. Killen, who even as an old man was rage-filled and dangerous (he ended my interview with him by pointing a shotgun at me and chasing me out of his house), died last Thursday in prison, peacefully, at the age of 92. The world is better off without him.

— Jeffrey Goldberg

I try to avoid the designations “racist” and “not racist,” in that racism is a property of a culture and of systems of which we are all a part. Just because you don’t literally call African countries shitty does not make you not racist; that’s just the most literal, extreme end of a spectrum.

Everyone who pays taxes or otherwise participates in the U.S. economy is in some way implicated. To get as close as possible to the “not racist” end of the spectrum, then, means working actively to undo and reverse systems of race-based oppression.

The person I’ve interviewed who did the most in that vein—in terms of reaching the most people and most influencing policy—was Barack Obama. ​

— James Hamblin

As the old ditty goes, “everyone’s a little bit racist.” We all have biases, to varying degrees, but my most intelligent sources are aware of their biases and try to account for them. They also are careful about leaping to assumptions that might be motivated by bias. If “least racist” implies people who are especially attuned to problems people of color face, I thought the abortion provider Willie Parker's thoughts on the challenges of being a poor, black woman were especially poignant:

Khazan: Something that I’ve heard a lot from abortion opponents is this idea that, because so many African American women have abortions, some of them have taken this up as a sort of a Black Lives Matter kind of cause, in that if black lives truly matter, then black women should be discouraged from getting abortions. What do you make of that argument?

Parker: I think it’s very interesting that all of a sudden black lives and the lives of black women, black babies, matter and that the loudest voice is coming from nonblack people. The women that I see, they’re advocating for having more resources to control their lives, not less. They place abortion in the context of the things that help them fulfill their reproductive destiny.

— Olga Khazan

This question is absurd, and uncomfortable, and of course that’s the point. But it does have me thinking about my time as a reporter on Capitol Hill, and the members of Congress who spoke frequently about how racial injustices informed their public service. Senator Daniel Inouye, who died in 2012, was one of them.

“Can you imagine that when I got here in 1959, the restaurant in the Congress of the United States was segregated?” Inouye once told me. “Can you imagine that a member of the United States House, a chairman of a committee, could not go there? But at that time, no one thought it was a big deal. Well, I thought it was a big deal.”

So Inouye took a fellow representative, who was black, to lunch with him one day. “I literally drag this guy into the dining room, and all the waiters are black. They smiled. They knew what was happening. Because they would have had to throw me out.” They didn’t.

“Well, I’m used to racism,” Inouye told me another time I interviewed him. “I was in an all-Japanese unit … This is in the war. To go to a combat zone and see signs [that say] ‘White Officers Only,’ you want to shoot that sign off. What war are we fighting here?”

— Adrienne LaFrance

I just interviewed Representative John Lewis to talk about race, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and his own work fighting for civil rights, and I have to say he’s probably the least racist person I’ve ever interviewed.

Lewis put his life on the line multiple times for civil rights and was arrested over 40 times in search of racial justice. He led the Freedom Rides and was arrested protesting for self-determination for South Africans and people in Sudan. Ironically, I spoke to him for a story that we published the same day that President Trump told pool reporters that he is the “least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

— Vann Newkirk

Tété-Michel Kpomassie, a Togolese villager who immigrated to Greenland. He had a lot to say about trading one difficult environment for another, but too much grace to use the word “shithole” for either, and too much intelligence to think the shitty aspects of these places had anything to do with race.

— Graeme Wood