Original Post: June 22nd, 2016 12:46
In August of 2014, on a local conservative talk radio station, I heard the host of a syndicated program liken African American protesters in Ferguson, Missouri to “beasts,” “animals,” and “savages.” He then equated people in Ferguson with ISIS, and said they are not deserving of “the rights handed to them.” He went on to tell his listeners they have to face “roving bands of violent black men terrorizing our communities.”
The next day, I was worked up enough to write a complaint to the station’s program director. In the letter, I made it clear that what this host had said was hateful, dehumanizing, and racist speech, and that we have too dark a history of racial hatred and violence for this kind of talk to so casually fill the airwaves. The program director responded untroubled, danced around my point, and tried to assure me that this host “is not a racist,” just before he proceeded to share with me an inflammatory racist propaganda video alleging a black on white “race war” which this host (again, “not a racist”) had recently shared on his program.
Looking back on this now, it strikes me as all too familiar to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Most everyone knows that a year ago Trump announced his campaign saying that Mexico was sending their “rapists” into the US. Since then, he has made waves on several more occasions – like the time he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the US – or all of the times he allowed or even encouraged violence against protesters – largely African Americans – as he openly pined for the days when “there used to consequences for protesting.”
Really, ever since he loudly questioned President Obama’s citizenship while briefly flirting with a presidential run back in 2011, Trump has been unusually (for a major party presidential candidate) uncoded in his racist appeals, loudly announcing himself with a tornado siren at a party traditionally filled with dog whistles. In short, he has brought to the campaign trail what is generally reserved for talk radio hosts.
Throughout all this, of course, Trump and his supporters have publicly denied any racism. Just like the person who begins a sentence they should have never started with, “I am not a racist, but…” Trump assures us he is “the least racist person you have ever met.” And even with his latest screeds, as he digs in claiming he is being unfairly treated in a civil case because of a federal judge with “Mexican heritage,” Trump is reportedly now telling his surrogates that it is the people questioning him on this who are “the racists.”
Meanwhile, the general tendency within the media has been to merely pose the question, “Is Donald Trump a racist?” At the same time, pundits have seemed anxious to cling to seemingly non-racial narratives to account for Trump’s support. Working class economic anxiety and a lack of jobs and wage growth, we have been told, supposedly explains a large swath of the potential voters lining up for Trump; Trump himself regularly says “we have to bring jobs back.” And yet, to thunderous applause from supporters, he has derided black protesters at his rallies, telling them to “get a job!” not so subtly hinting at a strong stream of racial resentment behind Trump’s appeal, resentment which Trump almost certainly understands and has gladly nurtured.
But the media tendency to keep the focus on whether or not to simply assign racism personally to Trump is indicative of the way we as a society attempt to keep racism at arm’s length. We seem to prefer treating racism as an elusive, distant, and individual matter of the heart, rather than a deep and long-running narrative of racial difference and a myth of racial hierarchy, both of which continue to infect and haunt our society.
The more compelling and pressing question is, why has Trump succeeded in securing the nomination of one of our two major parties, while running such a clearly racial and nativist campaign? Surely it is no coincidence that Trump has emerged, and made it this far with this kind of campaign now, in the midst of the second term of the first African American President in a nation that is growing increasingly diverse.
We have come a long way, and undoubtedly made progress. But throughout our history, moments of increased diversity and struggles or sudden advances toward greater equality have almost always sparked a racist backlash and an increased resistance to change. A major response to the Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s and 60s, for example, has been a half-century now of the deliberate political “Southern Strategy” to foster white racial resentment and anxiety while simultaneously denying white racism.
In Trump, we are seeing the latest and most bitter fruit of that strategy, but also a dark reminder of our history of racial injustice, built upon an ideology of white supremacy, the legacies of which are still with us. We need to remember that history, recognize that tragic legacy, and we need to reject Donald Trump.
Josh Cannon is Deputy Program Manager with the Equal Justice Initiative