By Steve Phillips* – The Nation
Is the president of the United States a racist? The short answer is yes, but the question itself actually misses the mark and is dangerously misdirected for those who want to redress the ongoing consequences of racism in America.
Since January, a number of national leaders have asserted that Trump is a racist. First, when asked on CBS’s 60 Minutes whether she believes President Trump is a racist, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, “Yeah, no question.” More recently, Senator Sherrod Brown followed suit, telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that “We have a president who is racist.” Bernie Sanders has also forcefully said, “We now have a President of the United States who is a racist.”
These statements were met with surprise by white male reporters. During the 60 Minutes interview, Anderson Cooper immediately challenged Ocasio-Cortez by asking, “How can you say that?” Chuck Todd, host of one of the most important television political platforms in the country, quickly cut off Brown with the rejoinder, “Let me pause you there. You believe in his heart, he’s a racist?”
Since that specific question is in the national conversation, we should give it a clear answer: Yes, Donald Trump is racist. My colleagues at Democracy in Color have catalogued 242 separate actions, statements, or policies from the first 18 months of the administration. Both Vox and The New York Times recently provided historical summaries of Trump’s racism going back decades.
While it’s important and a good sign that some of our nation’s leaders, and media, are coming forward to call out Trump as a racist, focusing on that narrow question is problematic and could be counterproductive in many ways to the larger goals of ending inequality and injustice in America.
First, it diverts attention from the manifestations of racism that are most destructive. The emphasis on one individual’s personal views, actions, or statements misses the point, if the goal is to dismantle racism. Martin Luther King clarified the distinction in 1963 when he challenged the idea that legislation “has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me.”
The problem in this country isn’t the backward views of individuals, even if one of those individuals occupies the Oval Office. What plagues this nation is a vast array of public policies and practices that perpetuate a status quo that is grossly unequal and unjust after centuries of explicit racialized economic exploitation that is maintained by widespread, contemporary implicit bias. It is those public policies and practices that are the problem and that need to be addressed.
Far more dangerous than Trump’s personal beliefs are his public actions to make America white again—his political efforts to consolidate the support of millions of individuals who fervently believe that white Americans are under siege from people of color, especially Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Muslims. At a recent Trump rally in El Paso, Texas, a Trump supporter articulated the public-policy priorities of far too many Americans when he said, “Build the wall, deport them all.”
Which leads to the second shortcoming of focusing on what’s in Trump’s heart—a diversion of energy and efforts from the immediate and most important challenges before us. The solution to a racist individual in the White House is to remove that individual (which absolutely has to happen). But our country’s problem is bigger than that. Much bigger. In order to transform this status quo, we need sophisticated electoral and social change strategies that are executed with a narrow focus and pinpoint precision.
In light of the significant opposition to increasing racial diversity and enthusiasm for returning to the days when white was legally and unapologetically right, the moral and political imperative of this moment is to build a larger, more powerful, and more effective movement than the one that propelled Trump to power and continues to cower most of the Republican Party. Journalist Ron Brownstein, one of the clearest analysts of this situation, describes what is happening right now as a struggle between the Coalition of of Restoration versus the Coalition of Transformation. Fortunately, there are more people in the Coalition of Transformation, what I call the New American Majority—people of color and progressive whites. The challenge is ensuring that those in the transformation coalition turn out to vote so that there are more voters in each upcoming election. Naming racism—especially systemic and structural racism—can in fact be an important and motivating signal to the multiracial base of the Democratic Party.
To maximize our prospects for victory, we should also work to attract moderate whites who are repulsed by Trump’s behavior but have managed to excuse and overlook what he is doing to the country. In order to attract those voters, a singular focus on what goes on in Trump’s heart rather than what comes out of his mouth and how those words represent the sentiments of a hateful and hostile movement of people would be a serious electoral mistake.
Democrats and progressives made a fatal miscalculation in 2016 when they emphasized Trump’s personality over his policies. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by the Clinton campaign and progressive allies highlighting the shortcomings of Trump’s temperament, sending the message that something was wrong with him. Had they highlighted his racially hateful and harmful agenda, then voters, especially moderate white voters, would have had to wonder if something was wrong with them if they chose to side with his candidacy. With the 2020 presidential campaign now underway, it would be electorally disastrous for progressives to replicate that strategic emphasis.
The better answer to the question, “Is Trump a racist?” is that it’s not about who he is, it’s about who we are as a country. Whatever is in his heart, his actions plainly show that he’s trying to return this country to a time when racism and white supremacy was the law of the land. But we are a better people than that, and if we make the right strategic decisions today, we can reclaim the political power necessary to build a country that reflects our highest and best values and ideals.
*Steve Phillips is a national political leader, civil-rights lawyer, author, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and the founder of Democracy in Color, an organization dedicated to race, politics, and the New American Majority. He is the author of the New York Times best seller, Brown Is the New White: How a Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. He is a regular contributor to The Nation.