The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and allies try to redefine racism by casting White men as victims

Republican politicians have tried to frame President Biden’s promise to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court as a racist decision. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Holding court at a political rally in Texas last week, former president Donald Trump implied that he — a wealthy White man who was elected to an office almost exclusively held by White men — was a victim of racism.

His claim referenced what he said were three “radical vicious, racist prosecutors” — one in Georgia, one in New York, one in Washington, and all of them Black — who are investigating his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and examining his business organization’s finances. But his comments made him the latest in a line of conservatives claiming, loudly and frequently, that White men are victims of racism.

After years of being branded a racist for his inflammatory comments and actions, Trump and some of his allies are attempting to turn that label back on their critics. In the process, they have wielded their own definition of racism, one that disregards the country’s history of racial exclusion that gives White people a monopoly on power and wealth. To make America more equitable, they argue, everyone must be treated equally and, therefore, White men must not in any way be disadvantaged.

This diverging definition of racism — often coupled with imagery, symbolism and quotes from the civil rights and other movements — reflects deep and often partisan divisions about what, if anything, needs to be done to produce a more equitable nation.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), for example, joined conservatives who complained that President Biden’s decision to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court was “offensive” and excludes most Americans. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said that limiting the pool to Black women is “affirmative racial discrimination.” And Trump surrogate Lynnette “Diamond” Hardaway called Biden’s approach “affirmative action” and said it was “racist, it is racism, toward anybody whether you’re White or Black.”

White people think racism is getting worse against themselves

Writ large, the statements cast White men as victims, enraging many members of marginalized communities.

Bishop Talbert Swan, president of the Greater Springfield, Mass., chapter of the NAACP, said, “It is gaslighting on steroids for White men who have always been the most privileged segment of society to think that America offering to non-White males the privileges that they have always had from birth is somehow discriminating against them. For that demographic to be out in public, screaming racism and pretending to be victims is one of the most clownish disingenuous acts that I’ve ever seen.”

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts in political speech and critics on the left say there is more at play than a disagreement over whether White people can be victims of racism or a slanted understanding of the role race plays in America. Some see the desire to identify racism and label opponents “racist” as an effort to wield grievance and stoke animus for political gain, a tactic Trump and others have used in campaigns to anger and animate voters. It’s a sentiment steeped in beliefs among some voters that attempts at equity have gone too far and are punishing people who happen to have been born White.

“The worst thing in the world you can be called today in the United States of America is a racist,” said Andrew Latham, a political science professor who teaches a class on conservative political thought at Macalester College in Minnesota. “And the Democratic Party has had a bit of a monopoly” on defining who is racist in the last few decades.

“I think what’s happened on the Republican side is that they’ve looked at that” and said Democrats have “overplayed their hand” and “now we can, in a kind of weird jujitsu way, we can use that against them. We can label them as racist. We can label President Biden’s whole decision to nominate a Black woman as just by definition racist.”

Although Trump and his allies have thrown around the racist label for years, their arguments have gotten louder since Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced he would retire. Biden vowed to nominate a Black woman to fill his seat, part of a pledge that equity would undergird his administration. Of the 115 Supreme Court justices appointed since it was created in 1789, all but seven have been White men. None has been a Black woman.

The decision to consider only Black women was deemed racist by many conservatives. For some, anything but a race-blind selection would reek of bias, and Biden’s parameters have been characterized as a political ploy to mollify a key constituency. Others have noted that narrowing the choices to Black women also excludes other historically disadvantaged groups, such as Hispanic women or women of Asian descent.

President Biden is committed to his campaign promise to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Here’s a list of his top contenders. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Cruz, a former presidential candidate whose father is Cuban American, has spoken stridently about what he sees as the latest evidence of racism in Democratic politics.

“The fact that he’s willing to make a promise at the outset, that it must be a Black woman, I got to say that’s offensive,” Cruz said on his podcast. Biden is “saying, ‘If you’re a White guy, tough luck. If you’re a White woman, tough luck. You don’t qualify.’ ”

Hardaway and her sister Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, the Black live-stream hosts made famous for their profligate praise of Trump and appearances at his rallies, said Biden’s Supreme Court announcement was a play at “identity politics” that threatened to upend the institution.

“They did it with Kamala Harris, and now they’re about to do it with the Supreme Court,” Hardaway said, speaking of Biden’s choice to make a Black woman his running mate for the 2020 election. “When you’re gonna pick somebody, they need to be qualified. When we look at affirmative action, to me that is racist, it is racism, toward anybody whether you’re White or Black.”

Officials in Biden’s White House have pushed back against such claims. Biden has said his administration and his executive actions will reflect the diversity of the country he leads. His defenders have pointed out the unfiltered praise conservatives heaped on Trump when he nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a White woman, to the Supreme Court.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted at Tuesday’s news briefing that Cruz called Barrett an “amazing role model for little girls” during her confirmation hearing. “He said it symbolized the unique American opportunity,” Psaki said. “There is no outcry around that.”

Allegations of racism have marked the Trump presidency

The back and forth reflects deep schisms about what, if anything, needs to be done to ensure that everyone has access to opportunity in America, divisions that largely split on partisan grounds.

According to a Pew Research study last year on such divisions, 77 percent of Republicans believe little or nothing needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans, regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds. Among Democrats, 74 percent said a lot more needs to be done to achieve racial equity.

Even the Anti-Defamation League, long viewed as an arbiter of the line between free speech and hate speech, has struggled with the cultural division, narrowing its definition of racism a few years ago to focus on acts against people of color, then broadening it this week to include other marginalized groups.

For some White voters, experts say, efforts to give certain groups added help can be seen as unnecessarily onerous and even discriminatory. Such views are often deeply held and affect how people — and voting blocs — feel about any number of issues, such as whether children study racial equity in school, who should receive food stamps, or whether an implicit bias seminar at work is a waste of time.

Other Trump allies have wrapped themselves in the rhetoric and symbolism of equality movements to make political points, specifically when it comes to vaccine and mask mandates. Robert Kennedy Jr., a former Trump adviser who has spread misinformation about vaccines, recently invoked Anne Frank in suggesting that Jews had more freedoms during the Holocaust than unvaccinated Americans do now, comments for which he later apologized.

Lynne Patton, a Trump adviser, posted a picture on Instagram of a Black man sitting at a lunch counter, surrounded by jeering White men, one of whom says, “We don’t allow unvaccinated folk in here.” Patton, who is Black, wrote in the caption, “those who support racist and unconstitutional mandates in 2022 WILL BE JUDGED BY HISTORY just as those who supported them 60 YEARS AGO are judged today.”

The rhetoric around racism is likely to intensify as the midterm elections approach, said Michael Fauntroy, the founding director of the Race, Politics and Policy Center at George Mason University.

“Conservative political strategy at this time is really about … keeping flames fired up to keep their base sufficiently inflamed, so that when it comes time to vote, they’ll vote their anger rather than their hope,” Fauntroy said. “It was critical race theory last month … it will be something else next month.”

For some liberal activists, the time leading up to the midterm elections will be spent resisting the urge to engage in Twitter wars and public diatribes against people seeking to redefine what racism is, said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a voter engagement and mobilization group.

In a recent call with allies, the topic of Biden’s Supreme Court pick came up, with corresponding advice to not engage on an issue that animates White conservative voters but not Black or liberal ones.

“We need to remember that disinformation and fear that drives the other side, particularly around issues like critical race theory, do not equally drive Black voters,” Ufot said in an interview. “We have to stop being reactive to talking points that motivate other audiences while ignoring the issues that actually matter to Black voters.”