A pedestrian walks past a mural dedicated to Freddie Gray, near the site where he was beaten by police in 2015 in Baltimore, on July 29. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX)

During Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, there has been an ongoing debate about whether Trump’s words and even the president himself should be called “racist.”

This debate has intensified in the past weeks. First, Trump tweeted that four nonwhite congresswomen should “go back” to where they “originally came from,” even though three of them were born in the United States.

And then, on Saturday, Trump, who has often used infestation imagery to describe places where minorities live, tweeted that Democratic Rep. Elijah Cumming’s Baltimore district was a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and a “very dangerous & filthy place.” Cumming’s district is actually relatively affluent and well-educated, but it is majority black, and Cummings himself is also black.

Although many politicians, political commentators, news outlets and even a few longtime defenders of the president have called Trump’s words “racist,” Republican leaders have generally closed ranks and rejected this characterization.

To understand this debate about Trump and racism, it’s important to put it in historical perspective. First, it is but one episode in a long history of American denials of the extent and consequences of prejudice, racial discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement and persecution. Whites have done so even when the racism was virtually undeniable.

Second, this debate illustrates the more recent and growing partisan polarization on the question of what constitutes racism. That polarization makes it unsurprising that so many Republican leaders would not condemn Trump in these terms.

Most Americans denied racism even under Jim Crow

The Jim Crow era, from the 1870s through the 1950s, was a period of explicit, legally sanctioned racism. Racial segregation was enforced by law for decades. Black people were subjected to systematic discrimination, property deprivation, disenfranchisement and even violent death at the hands of Southern racists.

But remarkably, when pollsters asked white Americans about the situation of blacks, most still thought that African Americans were being treated fairly. In 1944, 1946 and 1956, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asked Americans, “Do you think most [N]egroes in the United States are being treated fairly or unfairly?” The graph below shows that at least 60 percent of whites said that most blacks were treated fairly.


Graph by Michael Tesler. Source: NORC Surveys (accessed from Roper Center’s iPoll); Analysis limited to whites. (Michael Tesler)

By contrast, only 11 percent of African Americans said that blacks were treated fairly in 1956.

How could so many white people think this? One simple reason is that most whites at that time had racist attitudes themselves, such as opposing interracial marriage. The most prejudiced whites have always been the least likely to acknowledge the harmful effects of racism and discrimination against African Americans. This is exemplified in a figure like former Alabama governor George Wallace, who once infamously proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” — and didn’t even consider himself racist in the 1960s. (He would later reject this view and apologize.)

The denial of racism today still fits the Jim Crow pattern

The pattern of prejudiced whites denying racism is still true today. In a 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) survey, 53 percent of whites said that blacks didn’t face a lot of discrimination. Once again, this attitude is especially prevalent among those with more prejudiced attitudes toward black people.

In this survey, whites who said they would prefer to see their close relatives marry other whites, as well as whites who rated whites more favorably than blacks, were much less likely to say that there is a lot of discrimination against African Americans.


Graph by Michael Tesler. Source: 2018 CCES/UCI Module; Analysis limited to whites. (Michael Tesler/Michael Tesler)

What’s changed: The extraordinary partisan polarization on race

Of course, many things have changed since Jim Crow. One especially important difference is that hostility toward African Americans and the denial of racial discrimination was distributed across both parties in the 1950s. In the South, most whites were Democrats, after all.

Over time, however, and particularly in the past several years, Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart on questions of race. This gap is visible in how Democrats and Republicans think about racism as well.

Take one other seemingly clear-cut example of racism: the use of the n-word to describe African Americans. Polls show that Democrats and Republicans increasingly disagree on whether the n-word is offensive. Indeed, the percentage of Republicans who consider the word offensive or unacceptable has actually declined in recent years.


Graph by Michael Tesler. Sources: Aug. 19-21, 2018 YouGov/Economist Poll; Dec. 5-7, 2006 CNN ORC Poll; Aug. 14-16, 2018 YouGov/HuffPost Poll; June 24-29, 2015 YouGov Poll.) (Michael Tesler)

As of 2018, only 33 percent of self-reported Trump voters said that it was racist for whites to use the n-word, compared to 86 percent of Clinton voters.

We find this same partisan divide about other racial issues, including interracial marriage. In the 2018 CCES survey, only 23 percent of Trump voters disagreed with the statement, “I prefer my close relatives marry spouses of their same race,” compared to 63 percent of Clinton voters.

These gaps help explain why, overall, Trump voters think that discrimination against whites is more pervasive in the U.S. than discrimination against blacks.

To be sure, thinking that African Americans don’t face a lot of discrimination today, or saying that Trump’s racist tweets have nothing to do with race, is not the same as believing blacks were treated fairly in the Jim Crow era. But prejudiced whites have always denied the effects of racism and discrimination to justify and legitimize pervasive racial inequality — and this pattern holds today.

Don’t expect Trump’s tweets to change anything

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that many Americans would not call Trump’s recent statements racist. Polling from Fox News and YouGov/Economist found that bare majorities — 56 percent and 54 percent, respectively — of Americans thought that the “go back” language used in Trump’s tweets was racist. But only one-fifth of Republicans agreed.

Absent more widespread and sustained criticism of Trump from other Republicans, this is unlikely to change. If it doesn’t, then American politics will continue to be divided not simply on how to address racism, but what constitutes racism — and whether it even exists — in the first place.

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