What Should “Racism” Mean? Part II.

Republican leaders are disturbed by Trump’s racist comments. But two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think they’re racist at all.

In a week that saw Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to clinch a major-party nomination, probably more news-network air time got devoted to the effort of Republican leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. In the wake of his long series of attacks against the “Mexican” judge overseeing one of the Trump University fraud lawsuits, the word racist came up a lot, and few elected Republicans seemed willing to defend Trump from the charge that it applied to him.

Speaker Paul Ryan described a Trump statement as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Republican Senator Mark Kirk withdrew his endorsement of Trump, saying that in view of his recent statements “I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for president”. Maine’s Senator Susan Collins refused to rule out voting for Clinton. Former senatorial candidate (and major Republican donor) Meg Whitman compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. And on and on. The most blistering attack of all came from the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney:

I don’t want to see trickle-down racism. I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America. [1]

But if the primaries proved anything, it’s that the GOP’s leadership is out of tune with its voters, especially compared to Trump. So when YouGov asked whether Trump’s comments were racist, only 22% of Republicans were reading from Paul Ryan’s textbook, while almost 2/3rds said the comments weren’t racist. By a narrower 43%-39% margin, Republicans said that Trump was right to make those comments. [2]

What could they possibly be thinking?

Trump’s own explanation was far from convincing. In a prepared statement, he argued that his comments had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage” when actually they were just targeted at Judge Curiel, who apparently had it coming because he didn’t dismiss the Trump U lawsuit.

To me, that’s like yelling “Nigger!” at a black driver who cuts you off in traffic, and then feeling misunderstood when the blacks in your carpool take offense. You didn’t launch a categorical attack on all blacks, you just used a racial insult against one guy who had it coming because he was in your way. Why can’t they see the difference?

I got a better clue from listening to Bill O’Reilly. Wednesday night, Bill challenged Congressman Bill Flores about the Texas Republican’s use of racist.

Do you believe that Donald Trump gets up in the morning and says, “You know what? I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.”? Do you believe that? … Don’t you think it was more about Trump being angry with the judge’s decision in a civil litigation rather than the judge’s ethnicity? … OK, I get your point, but I think you understand mine as well. That you don’t use the R-word unless you are [talking about] David Duke, unless you have got a history of trying to denigrate minorities or other people.

Trump isn’t ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, so he’s not a racist. Even labeling specific quotes as racist (which is all Paul Ryan did; he didn’t call Trump a racist) is apparent going too far. The most O’Reilly would say was that they were “unwise”.

And now we’re back on a topic I covered two years ago in “What Should Racism Mean?“. At that time I reviewed a long list of pseudo-scandals that President Obama had started … by doing things that previous presidents had done without upsetting anybody: put his feet on a White House desk, let a Marine hold his umbrella, send secular Christmas cards, and so on. Similarly, the luxurious White House lifestyle — unchanged from previous administrations — suddenly began inspiring outrage when a black family moved in.

So I raised the question: Is that racist? And I allowed for the possibility that some might not want to call it that.

I sympathize with people who want to reserve racism for Adolf Hitler ordering the Final Solution to the Jewish problem or George Wallace standing in the door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The men who lynched Emmett Till or the grand jury that refused to indict them — those people were racists. I get that it doesn’t seem right to put them in the same category with the people who only just realized in 2009 that life in the White House is pretty sweet.

But a problem comes up: If you want to construe racist and racism very narrowly, then what words do you use for people who (for some reason other than conscious willful hatred) just can’t look at a black president or his family the same way they have always looked at white presidents and their families? It’s a thing; it really happens, and it has important political consequences. What do you call it?

The Trump/Curiel situation is similar. Trump is doing something morally objectionable here. He is taking advantage of his fans’ willingness to believe bad things about Mexican-Americans on flimsy or no evidence (just as, when he was pushing Birtherism, he was taking advantage of their willingness to believe bad things about a black president on flimsy or no evidence), in order to either put pressure on a federal judge or explain away why so many people are suing him for fraud.

In other words, once again he is looking at the public’s racial prejudices and saying, “I can make this work for me.” That doesn’t make him Hitler or David Duke, but it’s a despicable act that needs a name. What is it? O’Reilly’s suggestion of unwise doesn’t fill the bill, because there’s no moral component to unwise. Spending $35,000 on a Trump University course is unwise; Trump’s repeated and calculated abuse of Judge Curiel is something altogether different.

And if you are inside the conservative bubble, that “something” has no name. The word that the rest of the country uses — racism — has been declared off-limits and not replaced. And now that there is no way to talk about Trump’s offense, it doesn’t exist. Whatever is wrong with Trump’s statements can no longer be put into words, so they aren’t wrong — at least not to a plurality of Republicans.

George Orwell had this all figured out in the mid-20th century. As he wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. [my italics]

In today’s Newspeak, as spoken by devotees of AmCon, racism has been stripped of all meanings beyond getting up in the morning and saying “I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.” It applies to active white supremacists like David Duke, and no one else.

But if treating a black First Family differently from all white First Families isn’t racism, what is it? If citing a judge’s ethnicity as evidence of his unfitness isn’t racism, what is it?

Unless they’re trying to restrict the language to make these issues “literally unthinkable”, American conservatives owe us some new terminology.

[1] To flesh out what Romney might mean by “trickle-down racism”, look at this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center about how the bigotry in our presidential campaign is showing up in our schools and on our playgrounds.

[2] Among all voters, a 57%-20% majority said Trump was wrong, and a 51%-32% majority said the comments were racist. For some reason YouGov’s headline characterizes that majority as “thin”, but it really isn’t.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • David Mills  On June 13, 2016 at 8:50 am

    Brilliant Thank you,Doug


  • Xan  On June 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

    The wonderful Desiree Adaway suggests “white supremacist” which works in many contexts much better than the broader “racism.” It solves the problem you outline, while specifically calling out the perpetrators. And correlated terms like “black supremacy” or “Mexican supremacy” or “LGBT supremacy” have either entirely different connotations, or are simply nonsense.

    • Sal Petrillo  On June 13, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      I’d reverse them: White Supremacist would describe the type of person O’Reilly describes, Racist would describe the actions Trump took.

      White Supremacy to me involves a conscious worldview, and suggests violence to enforce. I’d consider it a more extreme term than Racist (and probably an accurate descriptor for what Trump is).

  • cgordon  On June 13, 2016 at 9:31 am

    Trump’s characterization of Judge Curiel as a Mexican might have been just his knee-jerk reaction of calling names on anyone he doesn’t like. But it also could have been a dog whistle. Was it racist? Was it an appeal to racists? I’m not sure. But his comments were also troubling to me because they showed a disrespect for the rule of law and for the concept of separation of powers that are completely unacceptable for a person who might be required to swear to uphold the Constitution.

    • JJ  On June 13, 2016 at 10:24 am

      And Trump has shown himself – once again – to be a rich spoiled brat.

      Because he is rich, he is used to people being deferential to him and bending the rules to accommodate him. His basic complaint with Judge Curiel is that he isn’t being sufficiently deferential – Judge Curiel is following the law, rather than bending the rules to accommodate Trump..

  • John  On June 13, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    I don’t think Trumps comments about Curiel were racist in and of themselves. In fact, they were a confession of racism. He didn’t say “Mexicans aren’t qualified to be judges.” What he said was, “I am racist. I have been spouting virulent racism about Mexicans from an extremely public platform, to the point where any reasonable person of Mexican heritage should hate me, which would then affect this judge’s impartiality.” Which is actually a much more interesting statement, although still pretty inexcusable.

    • Anonymous  On June 13, 2016 at 1:59 pm

      That is how I see it also, John. I thought Trump was saying that since he has offended many Mexicans with his outrageous prior statements (which were racist) a Mexican judge could not be impartial in deciding cases involving him. But I doubt if that is correct. This is just Trump trying to save his skin lest his supporters begin to suspect he might be a con artist. If the judge hadn’t been Mexican, Trump would have found some other basis for an accusation of impartiality.

  • alandesmet  On June 13, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    I strive, to varying level of success, to interpret what people say in the most charitable way possible. Given that, I’m hesitant to label most of the attacks on the Obamas as being racist. Given the Republicans increasing insistence that any Democrat must literally be Satan himself, I believe a lot of what happened to the Obamas would have happened to, say, John Edwards.

    That said, Trump was pretty straightforward. He believes Curiel is biased. (And certainly, Trump will claim that anyone who doesn’t do what he wants is biased.) But as to why Curiel is biased, Trump is clear: “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” There isn’t a lot of charitable reading possible here. Curiel cannot be trusted because of his ethnic background. That’s incredibly racist. Even if he’s just using it as a personal attack, it’s still racist.

    • weeklysift  On June 17, 2016 at 6:15 am

      A point I left out for length is that Trump’s accusation is particularly noxious, because the kind of bias he’s alleging is personal vindictiveness, not a more subtle perceptual bias.

      If, say, the Trump U scheme had been intentionally targeted at Hispanics, or if nativist politics played some role in the content of the Trump U courses, then you could imagine that Curiel would have a hard time hearing the case with an open mind. This would still mean that he lacked the objectivity a judge should have, but it would be an understandable human failing.

      But the facts of the Trump U case have no connection to Hispanic issues, other than via Trump himself. So Trump is alleging that Curiel is influenced by politics completely extraneous to the Trump U scheme. The picture is of Curiel hearing Trump talk about his wall and thinking, “I’m going to get that bastard.”

  • Abby  On June 13, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Interestingly, there are similar problems with the word “sexism”. It is often interpreted to mean (even legally, sometimes) that someone has to stand up in a meeting and announce that too many women have been hired, before he may be termed a sexist.

    • weeklysift  On June 15, 2016 at 7:25 am

      Agreed. And then what do you call the person who thinks a woman candidate “just doesn’t sound presidential”? Or who diverts a policy discussion onto criticism of her clothes and hair?

  • Geoff Arnold  On June 13, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    If Trump was sincerely convinced that Curiel was biased, he should have instructed his lawyers to file the appropriate motion. He has not. Therefore his protest is pure demagoguery, and potentially illegal.

    Of course it’s very likely that if Trump had so instructed his lawyers, they would have withdrawn from the case.

    • JJ  On June 13, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      Illegal as what? Contempt of court? Something else?

  • Joan Crouchley  On June 13, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    “But if treating a black First Family differently from all white First Families isn’t racism, what is it?” It is racism. Living in Nebraska, I see it constantly. People don’t even recognize what they say or do is racist. If I bite my tongue one more time, it may fall out. Must be time to speak out, loudly. Thank you, Doug.

  • coastcontact  On June 13, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    Paul Ryan on June 7, 2016. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

    I have personally been confronted with a racist. Of course he denied he is a racist. That is one of the faults of racists. They do not see their words as racist.

  • Guest  On June 15, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Yet another thoughtful post on an important subject, thank you, Doug. Sign me up for a more expansive rather than a more narrow definition of racist. I’d be open to making it radically expansive, to cover every case where a person is accepting race as some sort of true concept that is set in stone. Concepts of race and who belongs to which are very malleable over time. Why? Because at some fundamental level race is an imaginary construct. Science backs this up – at the level of species humans are basically interchangeable. Under this expansive view, it would be racist for Trump just to believe deep down that he is white. The whole concept of races would be held in contempt. Maybe it’s going too far, but there’s some truth to it…

    • weeklysift  On June 16, 2016 at 8:21 am

      In a post I wrote last year about Caitlyn Jenner, I used race as an example of the principle “Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.” You can understand why the first red-haired Englishman to sail to sub-Saharan Africa thought these people must be a different race. But in reality humanity expressed a continuum of genetic differences between him and the people he observed, and there was no clear place to put a boundary.

  • John T. Feret  On June 17, 2016 at 1:26 am

    Thank you for linking the SPLC report. When I heard the Romney line I jokingly thought if “Trickle-down Racism” is anything like its economic namesake that would mean no racism actually would occur in the masses. Unfortunately, racism of course is all too common.

    The SPLC report is frightening enough in the horrible things these children are going through. Yet what scares me more than the racism we know exists is how the openness of it might affect these children growing up. Nothing disenfranchises people like making them feel unwelcome. Daesh, Al-Qaeda and whoever else may be around in a few years will be more than happy to lie to them about who really cares about them. Columbine High School was terrorized by white kids who felt society didn’t like them. There is a good chance the racism we see today may push a few kids to feel and act in a similar manner, which will just continue the vicious circle. And there are people out there who are perfectly fine with that.

    I feel sick.

  • Kim Cooper  On June 17, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    I don’t know if this is what you are looking for, but I have had a rap I give for many years about racism: there is overt racism, and there is unconscious racism. It is easy to see and point out the overt racism, and therefore to reduce it to some extent. But unconscious racism is much more subtle, and harder to see, to define, and to point out successfully, so it will therefore be much harder to eradicate.

    • weeklysift  On June 19, 2016 at 7:55 am

      That’s similar to my view. Personally, I use “racism” in the broader sense, even though I recognize that a narrow sense can also be consistent, as long as you have some other way to talk about subtler forms of what-I-call racism.

      We tolerate broad usage of other pejorative words, like “theft”. Stealing the newspaper off a neighbor’s porch is theft, even if it’s not the Great Train Robbery. I think we can handle the idea that unconscious racism doesn’t make us Hitlers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: