Why People Remain Ignorant About Racism
The fact is that Americans have grown comfortable with racism resting just beneath the surface of our politics — to be activated whenever a politician or a community needed it, or some racist incident exhumed it only for us to bury it once again. What has resulted is an illusion that blinds us to what was actually happening right in front of our noses and in our heads — we believed that our country had become less racist because we were not as brazen as we once were.
Americans experienced the confusing effects of this pervasive contradiction between our stated commitments and practices with the election of Barack Obama. For many, Obama’s ascendance signaled the end of entitlement for whites. But instead, his presidency occasioned a resurgence of white resentment that set the stage for Trump. We experienced the vitriol of the Tea Party and saw several states seek to enact strict voter-ID laws that disproportionately impact black and brown voters, sometimes successfully. Obama proved our national commitment to racial equality. The vehement hatred of him exposed the illusion for what it is.
Trump has shattered that illusion. He rode race, the third rail of American politics, straight to the White House. He challenged Obama’s citizenship, called Mexicans rapists and criminals, proposed to ban all Muslims from entering the country, insisted on the need for “law and order,” argued that immigration was changing the “character” of the United States and openly courted white supremacists. He dog-whistled in a way that let no one feign deafness. Trump promised to dismantle Obamacare and provide a “beautiful” alternative, to make Mexico pay for “the wall” and to restore America’s manufacturing greatness — jobs and tax relief included. His pledges spoke directly to the forgotten American’s sense of victimhood: that he had been left behind during the Obama years and that his way of life was under threat.
Trump can promote the lie that his policies alone have produced the lowest black unemployment rate in history. He gives no credit to the Obama Administration and pays little attention to black labor-participation rates. He is silent about what would happen to the numbers if we include, as Harvard sociologist Bruce Western suggests, those who are incarcerated. Trump only cites the numbers to deepen the illusion and to justify the dismissal of claims of racial inequality as simple cries of victimhood.
Trump exists in a sweet spot between the soft bigotry of self-contradictory American liberals and the loud racism of those who shout “nigger” and demand that “Mexicans” go back to Mexico, all stuck in an economic system that cannot reconcile the startling gap between the top 1% and those busting their behinds to make ends meet. Trump sits right there, amid the mess and false promises, with a smirk on his face.
A 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, showed that 87% of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination today. Only 49% of white Americans feel the same. The disconnect between our stated commitments and our practice is so great that we can’t even agree on what the problem is. This is the hazy middle ground of the silent majority.
The facts of our daily lives in this country speak volumes. Studies reveal the racial bias in policing; in sentencing and rates of incarceration; in differential punishment in schools for black and brown children; in the persistence of residential segregation and its cascading effect in the life cycle of black people; in how even if an African-American or Hispanic adult earns a college degree, she will still financially lag behind a white American with the same degree.
But all of this was the case before Trump was elected. It is not enough, then, to decry the loud racists or to resist Donald Trump. We must, once and for all, confront the silent majority — even if until now we did not realize we are them. We must confront ourselves.
Trump reveals something terrible about us. But not to see yourself in Trump is to continue the lie. We must finally reject the lie.
But something fundamental is changing. As a country, we have been at the crossroads before — the Civil War, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the civil rights movement — and found ourselves with a choice to be otherwise. In each moment, no matter the possibilities in front of us or the significant changes in our social imaginations, the country held tightly to its prejudices and its unseemly beliefs about the value of white people. Trump broke the post–civil rights consensus that America would keep its racism quiet. He has unwittingly cracked a pernicious impediment — one we still hear in those who in one breath decry his explicit racism and then accept policies and positions that stoke the flames of white racial resentment. Surprisingly, though, Trump has provided us another choice, another chance.