The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Disbelieving black victims is the default position of conservatives. It’s shameful.

President Trump arrives at the White House on May 21.
President Trump arrives at the White House on May 21. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the slow suffocation of George Floyd and the bigoted libel against Christian Cooper differ in many details. But they have at least one thing in common: Had it not been for video evidence of these abuses, many Americans on the right would have given the white aggressors the benefit of the doubt. And some have still done so.

It reveals a great deal about the nature of our culture war that skepticism about black victims — attempting to portray their background in the worst possible light — is the default position of many on one side. And this is the main reason that some conservatives (like me) refuse to share the same political coalition as right-wing populists, even though our policy views sometimes coincide. Given our country’s history of racism — expressed in slavery, redemption, segregation and continuing white supremacy — it is simply wrong to join any political coalition that welcomes and features racists. This is, or should be, a moral dealbreaker.

There are a variety of other valid reasons to oppose President Trump’s reelection. There is his casual cruelty (expressed most recently in vile and baseless accusations of murder). There is his incompetent governance (which began the fight against covid-19 too late and may be ending it too early). There is his use of power for corrupt, self-serving purposes (like urging a foreign country to dig up dirt on a political rival or undermining the criminal investigation of cronies). There is his ongoing attempt to undermine confidence in free elections, just in case November brings an unwelcome outcome.

This rendition of the poem ‘Black 101’ memorializes the innocent lives poet Frank X Walker says are terrorized by white rage, including jogger Ahmaud Arbery. (Video: Frank X Walker, Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

But none of these provocations is as threatening to the identity of the country as Trump’s refusal to isolate and repudiate the contagion of racism.

When Trump retweets and elevates a racist figure, or praises protesters carrying Confederate flags, or singles out black athletes, journalists and politicians for attack, this is not only an individual moral failure on the part of the president (though it certainly is that). It represents the incorporation of racial bias — sometimes subtle, sometimes not — into his political appeal. He knows it, but, most important, bigots in his own party know it.

One reason the president does not focus on the universality of human dignity in his rhetoric is because he systemically dehumanizes migrants and refugees as rapists, murderers and terrorists. He simply lacks the capacity to talk about our shared humanity.

One reason Trump did not repudiate racist protesters in Charlottesville and Lansing, Mich., is because angry racists are his people — a valued part of his political base. In Trump’s eyes, no one who supports him can really be bad. And racists seem grateful to see their views mainstreamed.

Politics does not offer easy methods to transform disordered hearts. But politics can either abet or inhibit racial hatred. It can push back against prejudice, or let it flourish. Is anyone confident that Trump feels an urgent need to address the racial and social inequalities that covid-19 has revealed in our health-care system? Does anyone seriously believe that Trump’s Justice Department is organized to aggressively pursue racial justice? On these matters, the president has signaled indifference to inequality.

Who is supposed to care deeply about racial justice and reconciliation in the Republican coalition? I would have hoped that religious people would make such moral commitments a priority. Yet (in general) they haven’t. It is the kind of failure that does grave injury to their Christian witness.

Historically, the most effective attack on the role of Christianity in society has been that it is an epiphenomenon — that Christians employ mystical language to justify their tribalistic interests. In this view, religion is more of a mechanism to rationalize a preexisting political and social worldview rather than transforming it. (This is precisely what Southern slaveholders did when they provided religious justifications for slavery.)

What would the agenda of right-wing populism look like without evangelical Christian influence? The movement would probably be less pro-life. But much of evangelicalism’s policy contribution to the Trump agenda concerns the defense of religious institutions themselves. And on racial issues, the absence of religious people would make no discernible difference. While rhetorically repudiating racism, they tolerate and enable it.

People of faith should apply a moral yardstick to any political coalition they join. They should strive to add some humanizing element to the political world. In Christian terms, the Kingdom of God is not some future blessed state. It becomes present when believers live by a different set of values in the here and now. The nature of those duties can be debated. But they do not include providing an alibi for racism.

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: A nation polarized by violence

Michele L. Norris: How Amy Cooper and George Floyd represent two versions of racism that black Americans face every day

Ben Crump: Another unarmed black person has been killed. It’s no wonder we can’t breathe.

The Post’s View: Another unarmed black man has died at the hands of police. When will it end?

Max Boot: Trump’s Republican Party is defined by anti-anti-racism

Eliza Orlins: I’m a public defender in Manhattan. The Central Park video is all too familiar.

Wes Moore: We almost didn’t hear about Ahmaud Arbery. These stories must not go untold.