In the 1980s, suspense writer Stanley Ellin was accused of racism for presenting a first-person narrator of the most virulent (dare I say “Trumpian”?) sort in his novel The Dark Fantastic. Pointing out the racism of others was somehow deemed a racist act.
It seems nothing has changed over the last thirty years. Pointing out racism is still claimed by too many to be a racist act. Reaction to criticism of Trump by his supporters too often follows this line:
Here’s a synopsis of Trump’s tweet:
“If you think you can fix America’s problems, go back to your corrupt home country, fix theirs, then return and show us how it is done.”
Nothing even REMOTELY xenophobic or racist.
Only a complete racist themselves would see racism in that.
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) July 14, 2019
Mitchell’s tweet has almost 16,000 likes and nearly 6,000 retweets.
That’s not just alarming and ridiculous. It’s an attempt to derail a much needed conversation before it even gets started.
Ellin’s old book is, in part, an attempt to show American liberals the racism that may rest in their hearts even as they point out the racism of others–ironic, considering some of the reactions to the book by liberals. It is doubly ironic today, when similar reactions are used against even African-Americans with the effrontery to point out racism when they see it.
Everyone has racist elements to their being. We all distrust the “other” a bit more than those “like us.” But racism in the United States is more than simple clannishness: it’s systemic, pointed, and amplified by power imbalance. It’s klannishness.
And it’s a political tool. That is what we should be pointing out.
Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” a neutral-sounding term, was a plan to use anti-black sentiments to galvanize white voters in the old Confederacy to go to the polls. It worked so well that Ronald Reagan continued it, launching his 1980 campaign with a “states’ rights” (another racially coded phrase meant to seem innocent) speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the very place where three civil-rights workers were murdered in 1964–sending a deliberate, if sub rosa, message to white Americans–and a different one, really a threat, to the rest. Even Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign embraced racism–which itself seems ironic given Goldwater’s own ancestral Jewish heritage (antisemitism is linked, in America, inseparably to racist attitudes toward blacks).
When Trump supporters claim that Trump’s racist tweets are not racist, they are attempting to deny attitudes that clearly rest in them just the way they do in Trump. Their attempts at deflection are as infantile as the lyrics of that old children’s chant:
I’m rubber, you’re glue;
Bounces off me and sticks to you.
This is just what was happening to Ellin, who had seen his Brooklyn neighborhood go from white to black but who had stayed while other whites fled. He lifted the veil, showing the horror beneath, and was attacked for it.
Ellin wasn’t intimidated by this, and we who point out racism today shouldn’t be, either. Let the Mitchell’s of the world, the people who resolutely refuse to examine the racism within them, accuse those of us who are willing to take a look and, perhaps, do something about it, of racism. The cause of the charge is their own racism, not ours (whether we be black, brown or white) and it serves no purpose to let their attempted deflection succeed.
Trump’s accusers aren’t the problem. Trump is. His supporters are, too, when they jump on this refurbished nefarious bandwagon of his.
Are the rest of us racist? Sure, to some extent, we are. But we are not acting it out in a pernicious fashion as Trump and his minions are. Yes, the entire nation needs an honest conversation on race, but we cannot have that when one group is using race as a battering ram in an attempt to breach the walls of our democracy and overwhelm it.
For now, we need to call it for what it is, bringing this most virulent and dangerous form of racism into the light of day.