Why Calling the President a Racist is Beside the Point

We would do better if we measured the president’s racism by his policies and behavior, not by his heart and intent

Carolytn Kaster / AP

Mario Díaz-Balart spoke with the certainty of the easily converted. The duly elected representative of Florida’s 25th congressional district demurred…that an American president had led his supporters in call and response demanding that four of his House colleagues, citizens and women of color, to “go back to where they came from.” Asked by reporters to respond to the president’s July 18 rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Díaz-Balart, a son of Cuban immigrants, replied, “I’ve had a gazillion things happen to me. I’ve had a gazillion things said to me. We throw this racist thing around so easily…A statement does not make one racist.”

Memory compels me to take the congressman at his word. I too have had a much said to me. Camel jockey, wetback, Paki, Hindu hipster, a symphony of slander, variations on the color brown. I’ve had sand nigger shouted at me by classmates in Texas, towel head by a teammate at Stanford. A South African roommate, also a Stanford grad, delighted in addressing me as sand kaffer, a variation on his homeland’s vernacular.

Not once, in the countless times I’ve been called a terrorist or a 7–11 owner, did it occur to me to ask or to accuse my tormentors, Are you racist?

As it were, racist statements tended to serve as a preamble to the main event, which was nearly always some form of physical violence. Hearing slurs meant it was time to get moving fast, as there was sure to be a fist to duck, a shove to avoid, an angry driver to evade. What was “really” going on in the hearts and minds of my tormentors was, under these circumstances, of secondary importance to the party concerned.

Trump, of course, hasn’t said anything as crude as sand nigger or towelhead, not yet at least. Men of his ilk, being savvy in instinct if not intellect, know that it’s better to speak in elision and suggestion, in the in-between, even if he is credited by his supporters for saying the quiet part out loud. There are, even now, limits.

In Greenville, Trump hedged his animus. Being American meant abiding by a simple choice, presented in conditional if-then form. “If they don’t love [the US, then] tell them to leave it.” Elated, the crowd took up the call. “Send her back! Send her back!”

Go back, go back, if you don’t like how things are here, go back. As if possession of the country was theirs alone to dispense with as they saw fit. Go back, go back. Never mind that the ones telling us to go back invariably don’t know where the going “back” might be.

That the jeers heard in Greenville were word for word the same as those used years ago by my friend, spitting mad at my outrage over the US downing of Iran Air Flight 655, the phrasing no different from the shouts of a suburban couple angry at my parents over a movie theater parking space, was surely a coincidence. The congressman assures me.

The uncertainty over whether or not to describe as racist a president who calls for the physical removal of four women of color, four elected members of Congress, has been, if unremarkable. Offsite, away from the cameras, on the edges of social media…These hand wringers are met by the quiet lifting of hands, by immigrants and the children of immigrants, stepping forward to describe the first time, the latest time, that they were told to go back home. a reminder that to many the rest of us are to remain on the margins, made conditional citizens by our origin and appearance.

We would do better if we measured racism not as intent or purpose but as outcome and effort, specifically observable behavior and policies. I have no idea what goes on in the heart and mind of Trump; I doubt he does either. I do know that “racist” describes the consequences of our president’s actions. Those folks chanting last week in North Carolina to strip a Somali-American of her citizenship because their feelings are hurt by what she has to say, that’s racist behavior. The maudlin Mussolini who led the jeering crowd to that trough of hate performs racist politics, even if in a panic he denies it the day after.

The single but important advantage of this approach to race and racism is that it takes the excuse of invisible intent and “true meaning” off the table. It removes the racist’s “essential” and forever unknowable character from discussion. None of that matters. What’s in the bigot’s “heart and soul” is a matter for him, his psychiatrist, and his God to sort out. The rest of it, the families separated at the border despite our asylum laws, the kids locked in cages in violation of our decency as Americans, the political rivals threatened on a daily basis with physical and mortal danger, all of it slides easily into a basket labeled “racist.” These effects become our responsibility as voting — -and yes, demonstrating — -citizens to stop.

I don’t care whether the 40 percent of Americans who continue to support Trump three years into this shitstorm are racists. I don’t need to know whether Trump himself is “really” a racist. I can see it and I can hear it for myself.

Visiting Assistant Professor, Colgate University

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