How do we change difficult things?
Persistence, mostly, I’d say. We keep trying. We keep talking. We persist in our resistance to the causes of our dissatisfaction. This week, an example of a very difficult, very relevant issue in the U.S.A. that has resisted being reconciled for many decades. Contributing to the difficulty, civil rights legislation drove the recalcitrant issue of racism underground.
The U.S.A., and its prosperity, was built upon the slave labor of a particular group of people, African people. Obviously, this original sin has left a deep wound on society. The system that was produced by that history/legacy is rigged to work best for white people and disadvantages people of color.
How do we gain shared understanding about something as subjective as racism? How do we have public discourse with regard to a particular person’s racism? I’m not talking about complicity with the systemic white supremacy of the U.S.A.—the corporate, institutional, objectifiable, measurable racism that each and every one of us is complicit in by virtue of being U.S. citizens. I’m talking about the willful, white-supremacist racism of individuals.
The racism of an individual, subjective racism, is, well, subjective. It’s internal. In some cases it may be vividly expressed as militantly racist behavior making it difficult to deny. In other instances the speech/behavior may be deemed ‘intentional signaling’ (dog-whistling), however, that can easily be denied. The truth is, it’s impossible to know another’s ‘intentions’ beyond the shadow of any doubt without a truthful, direct report from the subject, a confession.
All this is problematic as it relates to politics. How, as a democratic society, do we talk about an individual and how they relate to white supremacy and racial bigotry? If we feel a person’s behavior and speech reflects that of a racist, can we make a significant claim of that person being a willful racist without their confession of intention? How do we, as a society, do interventions with leaders believed to be racist?
Many see President Trump as a divisive, dark cloud. His political coalition does include those animated by the immigration issue for reasons of maintaining white supremacy as a nation—the silver-lining here is the unintended consequences of the Trump-era climate. A public backlash (and discourse) about many of the difficult issues of our time, such as racism, has arisen.
U.S. Representative Steve King (Iowa ) has long been on the record as a spokesman for this bigoted view. King tweeted (in his endorsement of Mr. Wilders in Dutch elections):
When called out on it later, King doubled down:
“We’re watching as Western civilization is shrinking in the face of the massive, epic migration that is pouring into Europe. That’s the core of that tweet. They’re importing a different culture, a different civilization … and I say, and Geert Wilders says, Western civilization is a superior civilization — it is the first world.”
We’ve talked a good bit about shadows/projection, here’s an extreme example. Rep. King would likely be nonplussed if you said/asked, “That’s classic white supremacist racism, are you a proud white supremacist?” King’s blindness may be unconscious.
When asked if he is a white nationalist or white supremacist, Rep. King responded:
“I don’t answer those questions. I say to people that use those kind of allegations: Use those words a million times, because you’re reducing the value of them every time, and many of the people that use those words and make those allegations and ask those questions can’t even define the words they’re using.” (article)
In our social media connected world, novel ways emerge to examine political leaders. People like David Duke, Richard Spencer, et al., who have already voluntarily offered confession of their militant, white-supremacist, racist bigotry. We know without doubt these individuals are racist because they have proudly told the world precisely that. Days of burning crosses, hoods, and hiding identities have given way to tiki torches and emboldened displays of defiance toward any form of racial justice and reconciliation. Has a new window/mirror appeared?
President Trump and Rep. King are both in the category of those who’d never admit being racist. In what seems like affirmation by a kind of reverse projection—the loud and zealous voices of Duke, Spencer, et al.—do we have a new warrant on calling out our leaders’ speech/actions? Does the enthusiastic reaction to Trump by society’s out, openly racist voices provide a reliable, visible witness to his overt, if unadmitted, racism? Is Trump racist because openly racist folks say so?
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?