New York Times (Op-ed)
By Jenee Desmond-Harris
April 29, 2016
I have a confession: When Donald J. Trump swept five primaries on Tuesday, I was a little bit excited. And I don’t think I’m the only person who despises the role racism plays in American life who feels this way.
Let me explain.
For a certain group of voters, part of Mr. Trump’s appeal is obvious. They hear their own views echoed in his divisive and bigoted rhetoric. They’re the ones who nod in agreement that Mexican immigrants are rapists who are “bringing drugs” and that all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States. They’re people who think the linguistic anachronism “the blacks” sounds appropriate. They yearn for the return to a long-lost “great” version of America that it’s safe to guess existed before the implementation of the Civil Rights Act.
I’m not in this group. The prospect of a Trump presidency horrifies me. Like many others, I find the bigotry behind the Republican front-runner’s most controversial views infuriating and frightening.
But I also find it familiar. I’m a journalist who writes about race, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the way racism shapes American life, both in individual interactions and in the way institutions operate. What’s most frustrating is that, despite all the evidence, convincing people who would rather not believe that this is real can be hard.
Last March, I reported on the Department of Justice’s findings that the police and municipal courts in Ferguson, Mo., had consistently violated the constitutional rights of the city’s black residents. The article included a summary of the abuse of power investigators uncovered, as well as the content of public officials’ emails. (One example: a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, captioned “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”)
Simply for presenting the investigation’s findings and the cops’ and court officials’ revealing words, I received a barrage of angry messages asking why I had to “make everything about race.”
I’ve heard the same sort of thing in response to news stories about police killings of unarmed African-Americans, black girls facing disproportionate school discipline, record numbers of anti-Muslim attacks. Stop being divisive. People who focus on these things are the real racists.
One thing has been made very clear to me: Many people resent being confronted with information about how racism still shapes — and sometimes, ruins — life in this country.
Plenty of politicians are happy to take advantage of an American inclination to explain away even the most blatant racism. In September, Gov. Paul R. LePage, Republican of Maine, attributed drug abuse in his state to “Guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty,” who, he added, often “impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” Taken to task for the racial implications of his comments, he insisted that his description of “white” girls was race-neutral. His spokesman backed him up, saying, “Race is irrelevant.”
Tomás Jiménez, an associate professor of sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity at Stanford University, uses what he calls the “ghost metaphor” to describe the quandary of people who personally experience or aim to draw attention to racism. “It haunts every aspect of your life, but nobody else sees it and they don’t believe you” he said. “Sometimes it makes a very pronounced appearance, and that’s why people seize on it.”
That, he told me, is why Mr. Trump is refreshing to people who share his views, as well as to people who have always known that views like this exist.
In a world where racism and discrimination — both personal and systemic — shape opportunities and can even determine life or death, but are often denied, they’re rarely owned so boldly as they have been during this campaign.
As Professor Jiménez put it, “Trump and his supporters have turned the racial dog whistle into an air horn.”
The air horn is so piercingly loud that few can pretend they don’t hear it, or understand what it represents about the country.
At a March rally for Mr. Trump in Louisville, Shiya Nwanguma, a student, says she was called the n-word and other repulsive slurs. Video of the event shows her being pushed and shoved. Another protester there, Chanelle Helm, told Vibe magazine in March: “In my entire life I had never had anyone look at me with such hate. It was like the videos and photos we’ve seen from the Little Rock 9 and other school integration moments from the 1950s and ’60s where the fury was palpable in the eyes of the white women.”
At a high school basketball game in Indiana earlier this year, CNN reported that students chanted “Build that wall,” at an opposing team made up predominantly of Latino players.
The expression of racist views in this campaign has been so undeniable that even politicians — notoriously careful and diplomatic — are stating it as fact.
“America’s long struggle with racism is far from over, and we are seeing that in this election,” Hillary Clinton said at the National Action Network convention in April. She didn’t say racial tension, or community-police relations, or inequality, or issues faced by black and Latino Americans. She said: racism.
For once, nobody is pretending that racism is at a frequency so high they can’t make it out. Racism is no longer being treated as a feeling, an allegation, a matter of opinion, or something that can be negated by the announcement of a black friend.
Mr. Trump and his supporters serve another function, too: They expose the falsehood of the seductive myth that with time and increased diversity, racism will inevitably evaporate.
Whatever happens to Mr. Trump’s bid for the White House, the people who flocked to his rallies, who deployed the wall he hoped to build as slurs, will still be around.
When Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, a question bubbled up: “Is America on its way to being post-racial?” It was always laughably optimistic, but now we have a clearer answer than ever: no.
“The idea that there ever was a colorblind America was very short-lived,” Professor Jiménez said, but Mr. Obama’s presidency did provide fodder for those who were tempted to think that increased diversity would make bigotry a relic of the past.
If diversity is going to cause racial anxiety, it’s better to accept that than to lie to ourselves about the inevitability of a harmonious multiracial melting pot. It’s good to know the truth. And Mr. Trump’s supporters seemed to have provided a reality check.
Last week, a bookstore cashier made small talk with me and asked me what I write about as I checked out. “Mostly race,” I said. His face fell.
“I’m not supposed to talk about politics,” he said. “But Donald Trump …” His voice faded out as he shook his head. “I’d hoped we’d get to a better place with race, but I just don’t know if we’ll ever get there.”
That doubt is wise. When it comes to getting to “a better place with race,” there’s no reason for blind optimism. We should have a healthy fear that we’ll never get over the continuing effects of racism instead of a sugarcoated assumption that time and shifting census data on race will fix it.
Mr. Trump and his supporters have reignited that fear, even in people who claimed they couldn’t hear dog whistles. Even in people who swore they didn’t believe in ghosts.
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