For perhaps the first time, Donald Trump expressed an opinion that no one could disagree with. “Racism is evil,” he declared on Monday, two days after the attack on counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. (And one day before he said there were “very fine people” on both sides.)
The president was essentially condemning no one. Because nobody thinks of themselves as an evil racist. Not you. Not me. Not Trump, who once attacked a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage, accepted an endorsement from ex-KKK leader David Duke — before weakly renouncing him — and appointed men with ties to neo-Nazi extremists to his advisory team. (Here’s looking at you, Sebastian Gorka.) Not even the swastika-swaddled, Confederate-flag-waving marchers who took to the streets of Virginia on Saturday consider themselves racist.
“I dont hate anyone,” tweeted one of the speakers at the Unite the Right rally. “I believe everyone should be proud of who they are including white ppl.”
It’s easy to say that racism is evil. It’s much harder to grapple with racism, much less combat it.
To declare that racism is evil is to frame it as an abstract scourge that lurks in the hearts of only a few bigoted individuals. It’s a way of denying that, since this country’s founding, race has been a determining factor in how the government, the courts and your fellow citizens treat you. Racism is rarely as blatant as a torch-lit rally. Often subtly but surely, it manifests in public policies, political debates, cultural output and social interactions.
This is not what many of us were taught as children. I learned that racism is evil because people of all races and ethnicities are equal and should be treated as such. I did not learn about how "everything we hold dear as Americans," as Trump put it, has been fundamentally shaped by race.
To many Americans — not just on the right, but mostly on the right — “real,” tangible racism is all in the past. It’s not something that shows up in education, despite the fact that the number of “hyper-segregated” schools, in which 90% or more of students are minorities, grew from 5.7% in 1988 to 18.4% in 2016. And a General Accounting Office study found that such isolated schools “offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses.” (This is why many university admissions departments give members of marginalized groups, such as black and Latino students, consideration over other applicants with comparable or higher test scores. But that’s another matter.)
Only an evil racist would deny people the right to vote based on the color of their skin. Yet voter identification laws — which Trump vociferously supports — have been proved to reduce turnout among black, Latino and Asian American voters. White turnout, according to political scientists, is unaffected.
Modern Americans who understand that “racism is evil” would never tolerate a racist immigration policy, which until 1965 assigned quotas based on country of origin, with a preference for whites from northwestern Europe. And yet today, immigrants from countries such as the Philippines and Mexico typically have to wait to wait much longer for a visa than people from other countries.
The day before the president declared racism evil, he was on Fox News saying he might pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt after he ignored a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling people in Arizona’s Maricopa County, under the auspices of enforcing immigration law.
Of course Trump is not the only one to condemn racism while promoting policies that keep it firmly entrenched in American society. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions appeared on the “Today” show to say that “the ideology of hatred, violence, bigotry, racism, white supremacy — those things must be condemned in this country.” Under Sessions, the Justice Department has supported voter ID laws in Texas and may soon seek to curb affirmative action programs.
If we truly believe “racism is evil,” we can't just say so when the cameras are rolling. We have to root out the ways that it operates in real time. We have to work to change the long-standing systems that allow disproportionate wealth, opportunities and safety to accrue to white Americans. If we’re collectively only able to stand up to racists who self-identify as racists, we’ll never come close to ending racism.
“White supremacy is a scourge,” tweeted House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.”
I agree. Who wouldn’t? Let’s get to work.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion. She lives in Los Angeles.
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