These days, a lot of white people are feeling victimized and discriminated against, even though they’re not actually being systemically victimized and discriminated against because of their race. In one breath, they will deny that racism exists, only to cry “reverse racism” in the next breath. To racists, the real meaning of reverse racism is having to treat people of color fairly and with respect — to the point where it just feels uncomfortable.
The latest example of this dynamic came in the presidential campaign. At a fundraiser Friday, Hillary Clinton said that “half” of Trump’s campaign is attracted to his message because of their shared racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. She called them “irredeemable” and a “basket of deplorables.”
Trump, predictably, expressed shock and outrage, as racists tend to do when they’re challenged. Addressing the National Guard Association in Baltimore on Monday, he cast himself and his supporters as victims. “I was, thus, deeply shocked and alarmed this Friday to hear my opponent attack, slander, smear, demean these wonderful, amazing people who are supporting our campaign by the millions,” he said.
The same type of response met San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he started protesting police brutality against black people by sitting, and later kneeling, during the national anthem before football games. One anchor for Glenn Beck’s news site the Blaze, Tomi Lahren, said Kaepernick and other black Americans should “take some response-damn-bility for the problems in black communities.” Some fans tried to get people to boycott the National Football League until it agreed to prevent Kaepernick from exercising his right to free speech.
Whether Trump and his voters feel like victims is beside the point, as is the apparent belief among white NFL fans that politics must never interfere with their enjoyment of the sport.
In Clinton’s case, the reaction led her to walk away from the truth: “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong,” she said in a statement over the weekend.
The only thing Clinton should have apologized for was her lowball estimate.
The condemnation of Clinton’s remarks shows the level of denial and deflection required to allow discrimination to thrive without ever being addressed or acknowledged. It speaks to our nation’s inability to have honest, productive conversations about racism. White supremacy requires a nonstop diet of aggressive deceit, trickery and diversion.
Trump and his alt-right supporters rushed to accuse Clinton of stereotyping and prejudice, as though they haven’t made those things central to their entire campaign. Their reaction rests on the false idea that white Americans are the true victims of racism these days. It’s the same impulse behind insisting that “All Lives Matter” in response to the urgent demand that white people remember that black lives matter, too. And it rests on the notion that “reverse racism” really exists.
Black folks don’t have the individual or collective power to disenfranchise white people, police them aggressively or deny them adequate housing, education, employment and voting rights. There’s no power structure that targets whites the way structures of racism target people of color. And no matter how much it might hurt someone’s feelings to be accused of racism, that’s not the same as the harm that still happens to black people every day.
Outraged at “deplorables” and the idea that an NFL quarterback would dare to interrupt their Sunday reveries with an anti-racist statement, much of white America evidently does not want to confront the truth or reconcile the consequences of the stances it so proudly takes. Trump’s voters need to face who he continually reveals himself to be: a man who demeans veterans and the disabled, who says women are “dogs” and “pigs,” that “laziness is a trait in blacks,” that Mexicans are “rapists.”
All this denial has real harm. It prevents people who may only be unconsciously biased from incorporating unpleasant, unflattering information into their view of how they move through the world. Proud of the power and privilege they enjoy, they’re not usually ready or don’t want to transition into a productive conversation about how to create a more racially just and humane society.
Of course, most of Trump’s supporters are not burning crosses or publicly calling people the n-word. But they have still cozied up to a candidate whose policies and rhetoric are based in racism. The fact that they may deny or are unconscious of their biases is even more dangerous — because if they’re claiming not to be aware of their behaviors, they don’t have to acknowledge the consequences. They can plead innocence and claim to be powerless victims who are suffering just the same as people of color. It’s the ultimate diabolical ruse. And it protects white supremacy, and the individual privileges of whiteness, whether they realize it or not.
Many of the beliefs of Trump’s supporters — from the rabid racists to the unconsciously biased — are deplorable, and they don’t see how he is exploiting frustrated, disenfranchised and poor whites looking for someone to blame for their economic condition. He has successfully exploited their resentments, as if he’s going to give them jobs. But Trump has taken advantage of poor white people his entire professional life. He made his money off bankruptcies, stiffing vendors and contractors who could not pay the workers who built his hotels and casinos. He fleeced Atlantic City and left the people of all racial backgrounds there even poorer. Trump has nothing to sell but racial fear and blame.
None of that exonerates Clinton from some very public acts of racism herself — she did, after all, once refer to black children as “super-predators,” and she endorsed the atrocious crime and welfare bills her husband signed into law in the 1990s. But she does deserve credit here for standing up to Trump.
It is never inappropriate to call out racism. We don’t do it enough in this country. It is especially important for white people to call it out, to bear witness to it, to identify it among and within themselves — and to do something about it. Stop playing the victim, and talk honestly about how to keep this country off the verge of a racial nervous breakdown.