“Is Trump a racist?” is the wrong question to ask. It’s a distraction.
Worse, it’s counterproductive —labeling individuals as “racist” allows us to think of ourselves as “non-racist” and ignore the role we play in upholding structural racism. This reduces a systemic problem to an individual problem that quickly becomes “not my problem.” Racism thrives through the noncritical acceptance and perpetuation of racist ideas and racist actions. Racism perpetuates through denial. Racism without racists.
If we want racial equity, our focus needs to be on pointing out how racist ideas are used to justify racist actions. Rather than something you are, racist is something you are being. We think of the former as static—Trump is a racist—and the latter as dynamic—Trump made racist comments against Congressmembers Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Presley, and Tlaib. “Trump is a racist” ends the conversation. Focusing on his racist ideas and actions lets us talk about the ways these proliferate our society and their real-world impact. We contextualize Trump within the larger conversation about structural inequality within this country, drawn along racial lines, that we need to be having. White supremacy—the normalization of white identities at the expense of all others.
What is the point of the “is Trump a racist” debate? Whom we are trying to persuade with the argument that he is a racist?
Is our objective to persuade Trump himself? Do we expect some sort of epiphany, a Dickens-like realization and renunciation on his part of his racist ideologies? Do we believe that the fear of being labeled as a racist is enough of a deterrent for someone whose total disregard for anyone other than himself is perhaps matched only by his active and enthusiastic persecution of marginalized communities? Do we actually think that this latest offense will be the tipping point for someone with a well-documented history of promoting racist ideas and racist actions?
Is our objective to persuade Trump supporters that Trump is a racist? Trump supporters who latch gleefully to his racist ideas and actions and so justify their own? Trump supporters who treat his campaign agenda like a buffet from which they can pick what they wish while remaining unaccountable for the whole? Trump supporters who, if they don’t openly agree with his ongoing vilification, through words and deeds, of people of color, have no problem continuing to support it? To accept it? To excuse it? To look the other way?
Is our objective to persuade neutral parties that they should renounce Trump? Neutral parties, whose imagined neutrality is itself a political position? If folks aren’t actively renouncing racist ideas and policies, they are supporting racist ideas and polices, upholding structural injustice meted out along racial lines. Participating in racism. Being racist. Racism thrives through the noncritical acceptance and perpetuation of racist ideas and racist actions. Racism without racists.
What is the point behind the “is Trump a racist” debate? Whom we are trying to persuade by allowing the argument that Trump is a racist?
Framing “is Trump a racist” as an actual question, as something that needs debate, lends credibility to the position that he doesn’t promote racist ideas or actions. Makes him into one of the “very fine people.” Both sides merit discussion. Both sides.
This moral equivocation obscures the real abuse suffered by those who have and continue to suffer under Trump’s racist administration. We gaslight the victims while centering the oppressors. Saying, “go back to your own country” is a power grab that dictates who belongs and who doesn’t. “My country, not yours” is only available and enforceable to those in control, who benefit from the structural injustice. As the one in power, I don’t get to tell you that you haven’t been hurt, that I haven’t hurt you. The oppressor never defines the oppression.