Supporters of Republican front-runner Donald Trump gather at a rally in Dallas, Texas, on September 14, 2015. / Jamelle Bouie
Let us now do something sullying. Let us now praise Donald Trump.
It is not a specific action or statement that earns him his gold star. But he has nonetheless given America something it needs. Oddly from a man so uninformed and inarticulate, that something is knowledge. He is teaching white people something important, for many of us have been locked in shameful ignorance of our countrymen. Much of America convinced itself that there were no racists left—that the silencing of overt bigotry by social and legal censure (think of Paula Deen, Donald Sterling, or Don Imus) meant the problem of personal racism had been overcome. We therefore had to wrap our minds around “racism without racists.” But in fact the racists were with us all along.
A South Carolina poll taken just before that state’s primary vote—which Trump won easily—shows us just how prevalent bigotry is among Trump’s supporters and in the GOP at large. “A third of Mr. Trump’s (and [Ted] Cruz’s) backers believe that Japanese internment during World War II was a good idea,” political scientist Lynn Vavreck writes in the New York Times. The same poll “asked voters if they thought whites were a superior race.” Ten percent of South Carolina voters agreed and 11 percent weren’t sure, which is much the same thing. “Among Mr. Trump’s supporters, only 69 percent disagreed.” Seventy-four percent favor banning Muslims entering the country, and a third would do the same for gays and lesbians. And, nationally, “Nearly 20 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern states during the Civil War.” In the Washington Post, Vavreck’s colleague Michael Tesler breaks down national polls showing that high levels of “racial resentment” and “immigrant resentment” track support for Trump.
Racists were chastened by the word police but never disabused of white-supremacist ideology.
As surveys such as these demonstrate, blatant personal racism is alive and far too well. Yet, for decades now, anti-racist activists and intellectuals have been wringing water from the stones of “structure,” “institution,” and “color blindness.” White privilege has become the governing concept of anti-racist discourse. These activists and intellectuals are not wrong. Racism is embedded in institutions, and whiteness is a source of carefully husbanded advantage. So are maleness, heterosexuality, and Protestant Christianity. But institutional racism and “possessive investment in whiteness” are at once potent realities and bookish abstractions—to many, as consequential as they are incomprehensible. Try telling a white family on unemployment about their privilege. (Hell, try telling a Princeton student.) If you’re one of the poorly educated people Trump loves, these ideas are probably meaningless to you. Even if you’re not poorly educated but just steeped in America’s racial dysfunction, they may well sound like gibberish or some sort of lefty hoax. Consider that Chief Justice John Roberts, an erudite man and one of the most consequential thinkers of his age, actually believes that if we ignore race there will be no more racism.
This dysfunction and naïveté reflect not so much truth as conviction—many Americans are certain we have moved beyond not just racism but race itself. Think of the exhortations of post-racial America once Obama was in the White House. The activists and intellectuals rightly sneered, but who listened?
Even when the loudest voices in public life acknowledge that America is not post-racial, they have become experts in ignoring racism, and the population with them. We are so adept at blinding ourselves to the racists among us that we don’t even talk about them when we’re, you know, talking about them. The Post analysis follows its pollster’s convention on “racial resentment” and offers its own awkward and contrived “racial conservatism” rather than “racism.” Similarly, the words “racism” and “racist” don’t appear in the Times story explaining that a fifth of Trump’s supporters prefer blacks be enslaved and nearly a third in one state believe that whites are or may be inherently superior to blacks. Instead we hear about “ethnocentrism” and “deeply rooted racial attitudes” and “people who are responsive to religious, social and racial intolerance.” Now that is a verbal fugue to be reckoned with. Encore, maestro, encore.
Shockingly, the most ardent racists also won’t come right out and say it. Klan wizard dragon David Duke tells white people that voting for a candidate other than Trump is committing “treason to your heritage.” Grand enchanter Duke thinks we should recognize the “concerns of European Americans today.” High-powered lizard magician Duke appreciates that Trump has “meant a lot for the human rights of European Americans.”
Ethnocentrism, heritage, racial attitudes, European American human rights? Arise, America! Abandon the battlements of your code words. White people may not say “nigger” much anymore—sorry, “n—–”—but they still think it. At least, a considerable number of them do, and they might just go a long way toward nominating the Republican Party’s presidential candidate.
If this is surprising, it shouldn’t be. Racists were chastened by the word police but never disabused of an ideology in which white supremacy reflects the universe’s order, natural or divine. Remember when self-styled revanchist rancher and anti-federal cowboy hat Cliven Bundy argued that black people “abort their young children” and “put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton”? “Are they better off as slaves,” he mused, lightly disclaiming his beliefs by putting them in the form of a question. Ha ha, post-racial America laughed uncomfortably until he shut up. Ha ha, you’re one crazy guy.
But it is not one crazy guy, and there is no use pretending otherwise. That is 20 percent of the people voting for the man whom the pundits, on the eve of Super Tuesday, call inevitable, overwhelming, a runaway train.
So thank you, Donald Trump, for showing us more clearly the world we live in. Through your own bigoted pronouncements about Muslims and Mexicans—sometimes ironically couched in the formally neutral language of security and rule of law—you have made of yourself a shining beacon attracting the pestilent flies of American racism. They are matter, not vapor. The taboos are smashed and, with them, the recourse to conceptual difficulty. Privilege is real, but it doesn’t rest on a foundation of occult forces. Privilege is real because many Americans believe it is deserved—because they know, deep down, that God-soaked white people are just better than everyone else.