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Black Heritage 2018: Is the President Racist?

Donald Trump
At least he's never publicly worn blackface

We should all subscribe to the principle of charity, which states that it is best to assume the best possible interpretation for any argument or statement, lest we get caught in a death spiral of bad faith and faulty presumptions. In addition, we should be exceedingly careful when throwing around an incendiary term like "racist" without making extra sure it applies to the subject in question. With those two principles in mind, let's examine the President of the United States and try to determine if Donald Trump is, in fact, a racist. Most of you have probably already formed strong opinions on this matter--I know I have--but let's try to set those aside for the time being and take it from the top as dispassionately as possible.

The problem with attributing a belief to someone who categorically denies having it is that one can never truly know what is going on in another person's mind. That's why concrete evidence is important, and make no mistakes: Donald Trump categorically denies being racist. Of course, few people would openly admit such beliefs due to the heavy stigma attached to them, especially if they're a democratically elected head of state, and it's easy to imagine someone who holds a racist worldview deluding themselves into thinking their beliefs aren't really racist. That's why clear definitions are important, too, to cut through the rationalizations and confusion.

"Racism," then, is best defined as the underlying belief that individuals of a certain ethnic background and/or genetic make-up can all be assumed to have certain traits, advantages, and disadvantages, that it is reasonable to lump everyone together on the basis of their birth and pronounce broad judgments upon them, almost always in an effort to prove that one "race" is inferior to another. In this country, we largely get caught up on skin color, but that is hardly the only example of a genetic trait that is used to define whole groups. For instance, anti-Semitism (a negative prejudice or hatred against Jews) is often lumped together with racism, even though Judiasm, strictly speaking, is a religious affiliation, not an ethnicity.

shockingly racist Truman quote
To be fair, Trump would hardly be the first racist president

So what evidence do we have that Trump harbors any of these beliefs? While the question of President Trump's alleged racism precedes his running for office, it became most publicized a few weeks ago, after reports emerged that the president questioned Congressional leaders behind closed doors about the need to ensure immigration from certain "shithole" countries (namely, Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries) rather than more prosperous ones like Norway. The evidence is very strong that the president made these remarks, and aside from quibbling over whether he actually used the word "shithole," Trump has not denied it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the news coverage, political talking points, and punditry emerging from these reports put more focus on the word "shithole"--or on the point that some countries can be objectively better to live in than others--than on the underlying assumption of Trump's questions: that people from certain countries are inherently less valuable than people from other countries.

There is no way to escape the racist overtones of such a statement. Even if the president's "bad" countries weren't predominately populated by black people and his example of a "good" country wasn't populated almost entirely by white people, it would still be racist to assume that, solely because of the location of a human being's birth, that human is more or less acceptable than someone born somewhere else. However, if we step back and apply the principle of charity, maybe there's a better way to interpret the president's statement. Maybe he's trying to reward the countries that align more with American values by allowing more immigrants from those countries, or maybe he's genuinely confused about why we have previously prioritized immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa.

Unfortunately, the White House's official response, released immediately after the story broke, makes a point to clarify that "President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation." In this clarification, even charity can't cover up the stench of racism. In effect, the White House is arguing that people from certain countries are less capable than others of contributing to society, growing our economy, and assimilation. That is, by definition, a racist argument.

This is CNN
CNN was so offended by the word "shithole" they repeated it, uncensored, several dozen times an hour for three days

To be clear, there's really no reason to be outraged over the use of the term "shithole." Presidents have worked blue behind the scenes for pretty much ever, and it's no shocker that Donald Trump has a potty mouth. Even the last administration hosted the famously foul-tongued Joe Biden, and few people were up in arms over his frequent off-color diction. It also doesn't matter that most of us would rather live in Norway than in El Salvador. For all but the most vehement relativists out there, it is a matter of fact that some countries are worse places to live than others, but that doesn't mean that people born in those countries are somehow tainted by the poor living conditions there.

Still, one off-the-cuff remark or dubious policy decision does not a racist make. If this remark were the only example of Trump's alleged racism, it would be fair to dismiss it as a fluke and move on. Unfortunately, Trump has made a pattern of this sort of thing. Last summer, President Trump accused all Haitians of having AIDS and refered to Nigerians as living in huts. Earlier than that, on the campaign trail, Trump famously implied that (legal) Mexican immigrants were "rapists" and that a U.S. District Judge couldn't be impartial because of his Mexican heritage.

He's also gotten into trouble for failing to quickly rebuke the endorsements of white supremacists, for seeming to empathize with them after a person was killed during racially charged protests in Charlottesville, and for hiring Steve Bannon, a man who has been trafficking in white supremacy--whether intentionally or not--for quite some time now. Before Trump ever ran for president, too, there is a laundry list of statements from him that imply racism, things like "Laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. Itís not anything they can control," and "Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day." He's even been accused of favoring white people in his real estate dealings and hiring practices.

Trump's infamous taco bowl tweet
No article on this subject would be complete without this picture

The list goes on. Now, any one of these incidents or statements could be called into question. I daresay not one of them, by itself, could be definitive proof that Donald Trump is a racist. Some quotes may be twisted, wildly out of context, or misreported. Some could even be outright fabrications. His embrace by the openly racist alt-right might not be his fault, and his connection to white supremacy may be overblown and genuinely accidental. His immigration policies might be more nuanced than they seem, and there is a very real possibility that there is an element of troll theater to the man that lets him get away with saying things he doesn't truly believe.

However, taken together, all of the evidence is overwhelming. I can't see how any objective, intellectually honest person can look at it as a whole and not come to a clear conclusion. Of course, I'm not arguing that everybody who supports President Trump must also be racist or that even a majority of people who elected him harbor some racist inclinations. That would be stretching the flawed logic of guilt by association a bit too far, and it ignores how leaders are elected based on a wide range of criteria that includes dozens of singular pet issues of individual voters, not to mention Trump's record-breaking unpopularity when he was elected. Unfortunately, now that extreme partisan defensiveness has kicked in, there are few things the rabid Trump supporter won't excuse or summarily dismiss. (On the plus side, most political leaders on both sides of the aisle have been quick to denounce Trump's most egregious examples of plausible racism, as with the whole "shithole" debacle.)

Usually, I use February--Black History Month--as my month to decry this country's unhealthy obsession with race, to remind my readers that segregating history is no way to bring unity. I've been doing it annually for a decade now. I don't even believe that "race" is a thing, because we are all members of the human race and assigning global attributes to any group of people based on genetics is not only morally abhorrent but inconsistent with scientific rigor. I am usually here to denounce all forms of racism, be it the blatant hatred of white supremacists or the quota-counting identity peddling so prevalent in 21st Century social politics, but not this year. This year, I'm here to inform you that, where race relations are concerned, we're pretty much screwed as a country, because even if you give him the most charitable reading and conservative reading, the President of the United States is a racist.


-e. magill 2/1/2018

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