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The Significance of Overt Racism

If I were to ask, “Is Trump racist?” most would agree that the answer to this question is yes. If I were to ask, “Are Trump’s supporters racist?” I think most would agree that many of them at least harbor racist views. But if I were to ask, “What is the significance of their racism?” the ground for agreement would fall apart. Reckoning with the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, it seems as if many of us think that racism is bad, but I’m not sure we know why it is. I mean, what is really harmful about thinking that black people are lazy? Or that Latinos are hell bent on their machismo? Or that Asians are really great at math? If someone typecasts all Blacks, Latinos and Asians in this way, it might be offensive and annoying, but are these views really pernicious and dangerous in this day and age?

And then, Trump appeared on our television screens as a Republican Party presidential candidate. Before he arrived, the word “racism” most often appeared in mainstream discourse with institutional preceding it. Racism understood as consciously held and expressed racist beliefs and sentiments, many scholars suggested, was largely a thing of the past. The story went that, today, the majority of whites are really committed to racial equality. Racial injustice (not racism, mind you) persists because inadvertent mind bugs, that is, implicit biases and unconsciously held beliefs, impact their actions without their consent. Racial injustice in the contemporary moment was just our racist past haunting us.

And then, Donald J. Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 Presidential election. Trump and the people he will appoint to prominent positions in his administration are overtly racist in ways that it is hard for even the skilled denier of racism to deny. And yet, he will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America because he got a majority of the white vote. And I have to say, I’ve been wondering what happened to this clear majority of whites who were committed to racial equality? What happened to racism, proper, being a thing of the past? Why, in fact, did a majority of white voters vote for Donald Trump?

And then, the answer, “Because they are racists,” has been deemed from the perspective of many liberal pundits as not only incomplete, but a view that inhibits our ability to perceive a complex set of issues that have coalesced in this historical moment to enable the rise of Trump. To get some complexity, journalists and scholars venture into places Clinton’s voters hadn’t dared to go. These complex thinkers admit that the people they listened to had racist views, but ultimately conclude that racism wasn’t as important a factor as people’s economic despair or their need to feel like men, or their desire for respect as rural people. These other factors, while often tangled with racist views, these complex thinkers assert, stand apart from racism, are valid and must be addressed if we hope to bring these people back into the fold of American life.

And then, I had this impulse to take on one of these “complex” stories, and show point by point how these “other” factors, that are supposedly not about racism, are actually manifestations of it. But in the middle of doing this, it hit me that these “complex” stories about white people who voted for Trump were not about journalists and scholars not seeing racism, but about them thinking that racism — the racist views of those they interviewed — was not all that significant.

And then, Arendt creeped into my head, especially her claim that antisemitism is an outrage to common sense. By this she meant that it was really hard for people to accept Nazi’s at their word that “their chief discovery [was] the role of the Jewish people in world politics and their chief interest [was the] persecution of Jews all over the world” (Origins, 3). Instead, people chose to believe that the centrality of antisemitism in the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany was simply an accident or a means for greater ends like the mobilization of the masses or enlarging Hitler’s presence as a demagogue. And like antisemitism particularly, racism as a general phenomenon strikes me as an outrage to common sense. It is evidenced by the journalistic and scholarly attempts to reckon with the racism of Trump and his supporters with “complexity.” Like those who simply couldn’t accept the centrality of antisemitism, the inability of many of us to accept the centrality of racism in the Trump phenomenon is a way to escape the seriousness of racism in the United States of America.

And then, Arendt discloses for us how we might go about apprehending the seriousness of racism through the shadow of common sense. In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt says that one does this by reckoning with the fact that antisemitism was an effective tool for establishing terror as a major weapon of government. However, Arendt also explains that before terror is established as a form of government, it first “must be presented as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology, and the ideology must have won the adherence of many, even a majority before terror can be established” (Origins, 7). Terror, in its most general sense for Arendt, describes punishment meted out by the state because it has been determined that a person has broken the law, not because of his actions, but for other arbitrary reasons.

Prior to the Nazi’s use of antisemitism as a tool of terror in the twentieth century, Arendt says that despite a deeply class-stratified society in Western Europe, antisemitism had united the sentiments of gentiles against Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The antisemitic sentiments that grounded Western European society were not just widely-held negative beliefs about Jews, but also an organizing principle that (re)produced a social and economic order that was intrinsically antisemitic. These antisemitic sentiments not only established a world order but also a dangerous habit of knowing people independent of who they showed themselves to be through their actual actions, and in accordance to proclivities that had been attributed to them because of their race. This habit of race-thinking, or more aptly put race world-making, was dangerous because it was compatible with enforcing the law through terror, that is, through judicial decisions that determined guilt and a person’s punishment (or the lack thereof) because they were a Jew, not because his actions had been demonstrated to be in violation of the law. And once law enforcers engage in this kind of terror, the rule of law has been undermined and the entire political community is in danger of collapsing.

The rise of Trump, then, a man who encourages mob rule at his rallies, says he will move on establishing a Muslim registry, and promises to emphasize law and order in his administration ought to make clear what has always been the stakes of tackling racism in this country. The link Arendt draws between racism and terror especially rings true to me three weeks removed from Trump’s victory, not because Trump marks the reemergence of the link between racism and terror in the United States, but because Trump’s victory crystalizes the fact that the link between racism and terror in this country has never been broken, even under the watch of President Barack Obama. Think of how Muslim communities have been targeted by the FBI and CIA to stop potential terrorists before they strike. Think of all of the footage caught by video phones, dash cams, and body cameras that show police officers murdering and brutalizing black people just for existing. Think about the unjust war being waged against Native Americans who are defending their land rights in North Dakota. Racism is bad (racist views and all) not just because it limits the life chances of those marginalized, but because it produces social and economic orders that exude it and habits of race world-making that penetrate and undermine the rule of law.

Taking racism seriously is a complex enterprise. It means acknowledging that racism and the social and economic order of a racist society are inextricably linked. This is the case in the United States of America. It also means realizing that racism has always been and will always be a threat to the very existence of American democracy. And yes, the racist views of Trump voters are not only significant, they are terrifying. Attempts to persuade people that these racist views can be overcome by attending to the economic despair of the white working class are equally as terrifying. For me, one thing is certain, however we move forward under these national conditions of terror, we can no longer afford to give in to common sense fallacies about racism.


Ainsley LeSure, Assistant Professor in Politics, Occidental College