The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, reacted on Twitter:
Here we go again. It's racist to refer to #COVID19, a disease that has killed 100k+ in America, by a name that incites hate. And just days after his campaign used a symbol associated w/ Nazis. Unprecedented for any @POTUS to divide and gaslight this way. https://t.co/sbrJR1GWR3— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) June 21, 2020
(Last week, Facebook took down a Trump ad featuring an inverted red triangle, a near copy of a Nazi symbol used to identify political prisoners in death camps.)
We are told to avoid inferring motives (How can we know what is in his heart?), but it’s a ridiculous dodge for Republicans to say they do not know what is in the president’s heart or for right-wing Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) to insist he does not know whether the phrase is racist (although he won’t use it).
This is a president who referred to countries with mostly nonwhite populations as “s---hole” countries; who made his political start with birtherism (designed to deny legitimacy to the first African American president); who continued to call for the death penalty for the Central Park Five (who were exonerated); and who began his 2016 campaign saying that Mexican immigrants are “bringing crime” and that “they’re rapists." So it’s clear Trump is doing more than using racially “insensitive” or “provocative” language. His reverence for Confederate statues and memorials is not about amorphous “heritage”; it is about a “heritage” of enslavement (not to mention treason). When he tells black and brown members of Congress born in the United States to “go back” where they came from, he is writing nonwhites out of America.
It was not too long ago that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was willing to say out loud that Trump is a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” even before Trump’s presidency added to his compendium of racist slurs. Now, Republicans feign offense when Trump’s racism is identified. It would be harder to play dumb and play victim if the media deployed accurate terminology to explain Trump’s utterances.
The media would do well to follow the lead of retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. The Atlantic’s David Freed reports:
“I believe the president is a racist,” he told me. “The statement has to be made.”For a former officer of Sanchez’s rank to openly brand the president a bigot — as he does in a 1,322-word statement on racial injustice — is unprecedented, military historians say.“The overtly racist comments and discriminatory actions of our current President,” Sanchez wrote, “have convinced me that this administration does not actually view racial diversity as a pillar of American strength, and that it is choosing to actively ignore many elements of our Constitution.”
Sanchez’s statement cautions, “Every American should be gravely concerned when our leadership strays from the rights and values established by our forefathers as the guiding light for American Democracy.” However, so long as the media and Trump’s fellow Republicans dance around the term “racist,” the president escapes full accountability for his words. The media become handmaids in his effort to normalize overtly racist language and give cover to Republicans who wish to escape calling it out as such.
At a time when we are still struggling to convince some whites that there is systemic racism, it does not help our political debate nor does it educate voters to refrain from labeling blatant language as racist. It perpetuates the notion that, unless a statement explicitly expresses hatred for a group, it is somehow less than racist. It defines deviancy downward, as the late New York senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, put it.
The fuzzy language used to describe Trump’s utterances allow his voters to avoid responsibility for backing a racist. They say they don’t like “some of his language” or they “don’t agree” with some of his rhetoric, but that’s a flat-out dodge. If they want to say they are willing to support a racist to get judges or that it’s worth electing a racist to get a tax cut, then they should say so. But there should be no doubt “some of his language” is doing more than “fanning flames” of racism. It is racist, period.