Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Some of My Best Wives Are Black!"

by Neil H. Buchanan

Apparently, at least one Democratic presidential candidate (Kamala Harris) is now willing to say out loud that Donald Trump is a racist.  This is only a big deal because Trump and his fellow travelers benefit from well-meaning people's understandable social skittishness about calling anyone a racist.  When good people insist on talking about "racially charged remarks" or "attitudes that some view as racist, but no one can know what is in another person's heart," however, that simply creates space for Trump and other racists to push further.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin (taking a break, I was relieved to see, from her tiresome and misguided crusade about Democrats "handing Trump the election by moving too far left") points out that, although calling Trump a racist is both true and right, it does raise a touchy issue, which is what a Democratic contender will say when the inevitable followup question lands: "Well, if you think he's a racist, do you think his followers are necessarily also racists?"

Rubin offers a perfectly plausible reason why a politician would want to finesse that question, on the theory that even racists in this society do not want to be called racist (and might not even realize it).  Not being a candidate myself, however, I aggressively took that extra step in my most recent Verdict column, published earlier this week: "The Democracy Conundrum: What If Large Numbers of Voters Are Racists? (The Trump/Brexit Tragedies)."

See? "Racists" is right there in the title.  Like many other observers, I have been struggling with this for quite some time, but I decided that some things need to be called what they are, and the non-racist rationalizations for Trump's actions -- and his supporters' continued adoration of him -- work less and less well as every day passes.

How will racists react to being called out?  Glad you asked.

I continue to hold out hope that there are some among Trump's supporters who are misinformed (via the Foxiverse) or simply fail to follow the cause-and-effect of what their man is doing, and therefore might not be racist.  I also know that every politician wants to find the people who can be flipped to her side; and not only are some actual racists politically flippable (some voted for Barack Obama, as I will discuss below), but non-racists might recoil at seeing someone else being insulted -- even if the insult is accurate.

Fine.  What about the racists who cannot be convinced?  How might they respond?  The answer is obvious: self-righteous anger.  "How dare you say such things?!  I have never been so outraged!"  And sure enough, even though the hate-mail part of my day had gone to zero since Newsweek stopped republishing our Verdict/Dorf on Law columns a year ago, one angry Trump supporter did find my column and decided to give me a piece of his mind in an email:
Dear Professor Buchanan:

Screw you.

I am a Caucasian Trump supporter and my African-American spouse would be surprised to learn that I am therefore a racist. You are ignorant to baselessly tar those who disagree with you with that vile canard. Republicans are the idealists about race; something to do with the Civil War Amendments.

Try to do better.


Is my job not great?  I should point out that the emailer did sign his name and added the information that he graduated from an elite Southern law school in the mid-80's.  As a starting point, then, we should be clear that this is not the now-mythic "struggling blue-collar former Democrat who fled to Trump out of desperation but isn't a racist."  Statistically speaking, this emailer was likely a Republican long before Trump came along and did not see any reason to abandon his party (as Rubin and others did) when Trump further polluted the waters.  We are, in other words, most likely talking about one of the people who is not now, and never was, flippable.

Which is fine, except that the content (if one can call it that) of the response is utterly dishonest and confused.  When I receive this kind of aggressive missive, I find myself composing snarky responses in my head, never to be sent -- NEVER, because the first rule of this game is "Don't Feed the Trolls."  (Using such nonsense as material for columns, yes; responding directly, no.)

Still, I imagined sending this: "Yes, I suppose your African-American spouse would be surprised that you're a racist."  I then thought that a better (and likely more accurate) response would be: "Actually, I bet your African-American spouse wouldn't be surprised at all."  But those responses only partly get at the actual issue that this kind of comment raises, which is captured in the title of this column: "Some of my best wives are Black!"

(Note that I am setting aside here the whole "Republicans are the party of Lincoln" bit, which is simply too ridiculous to spend time going over yet again.)

This is, of course, a play on the time-tested response by racists, who invariably insist that some of their best friends are black (or Jewish, or Latino, or Muslim, or whatever particular group needs to be trotted out as props) to push back against being called bigots.  By coincidence, a correspondent for The New York Times wrote a piece earlier this month titled "The ‘Some of My Best Friends Are Black’ Defense," with the helpful subtitle: "It’s a myth that proximity to blackness immunizes white people from doing racist things."

That writer, John Eligon, noted that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and his supporters have been using a particularly aggressive version of this classic defense, telling and retelling stories about Northam growing up in an integrated school district.  Eligon points out that this merely raises the question of how Northam, then in his mid-20's, could not have known -- by virtue in particular of his proximity to African-American friends -- that blackface is offensive.  And even if he was not racist then, how is it that Northam is only now, at age 59, saying that he needs to learn more and is willing to do so?

Northam at least has the decency to say that he wants to do better, and he might even make some progress.  But the "some of my best friends" approach is something that even Trump and his supporters use, with Trump cringingly talking about "my African-American" at one rally and lying at other times about how "the blacks love me."  Trump's handlers reportedly scramble to find any black faces they can at his rallies and make sure they are in the group of supporters who stand waving signs within the camera frame while Trump shouts his speeches.

This is, in other words, tokenism.  But the emailer above makes a more pointed claim, which is that he married an African-American woman, which must mean that he cannot possibly be racist.  That is far more than saying that he has gotten along with guys at work who were nonwhite.  Marriage is only to one person, and it seems strange to imagine that a person could hate who his spouse is.

As superficially appealing as that argument is, however, it ultimately does not work, in several interesting ways.  (At least the guy is interestingly bigoted and insulting.)  As an initial riposte, consider what we would think of a man who said: "My female spouse would be surprised to learn that I am a sexist."

We can leave aside the depressing reality that there are many women (almost all white) who voted for Trump, notwithstanding his grotesquely obvious hatred of women.  But if the claim is that one cannot hate the category of people that includes one's spouse, then it is plainly ridiculous.  Plenty of men are deeply misogynistic, but rather than not marrying, they live in deeply misogynistic marriages that are hell for their spouses.

But one might respond that, if one believes (correctly) that sexuality is not a choice, then a heterosexual male has no choice but to marry a woman, whereas he does have the choice not to marry outside of his race (or whatever other arbitrary category might motivate him).  If he marries an African-American, the argument insistently concludes, then he must not hate black people.  Indeed, he fell in love with one and is (or, for present purposes, I am willing to assume) a good husband to her.

As far as it goes, that would be a good thing.  But again, that does not actually get us very far.  We want to imagine that when a Capulet and a Montague fell in love, they and their clans saw the power of love and the arbitrariness of their hatred.  In reality, a person could easily say that "she is one of the good ones" but still think that almost all of the rest of "them" are bad.  (Or maybe she is the only good one?)

That is why my never-emailed responses --"Yes, I'll bet your wife would be surprised," and "Actually, she wouldn't be surprised at all" -- both work.  It is easy to imagine that the man's wife is horrified to find that the man she thought was non-racist is now a Trump supporter or to picture her rolling her eyes and thinking, "Yeah, no surprise there."

As noted above, there has been a version of this argument floating around since Trump's election, which is the phenomenon of people who voted once or twice for Obama and then switched to Trump.  As it turns out, the much bigger group that made the difference was Obama voters who stayed home in 2016 -- thus passively supporting Trump by not voting against him -- but many of Trump's apologists have pointed to the Obama/Trump voters as proof that one can vote for Trump and not be a racist.

That argument, however, assumes that the only thing that one cares about is the race of a candidate.  One can be a racist but, in the balance of things, be willing to vote for one particularly appealing (and deliberately non-confrontational) African-American president while still hating his race and being open to subsequent claims that he is favoring "his people" by showering welfare and affirmative action benefits, to the disadvantage of aggrieved white voters.

Similarly, one chooses a spouse for a number of ineffable reasons.  One person can overlook the fact that his chosen one is a smoker, another can decide to tolerate a bad set of in-laws, still another can put up with an annoying laugh, and finally one could even say, "Well, she's black, but I love her anyway."  That is better, of course, than simply hating people of another race so much that marriage is out of the question; but it most definitely does not prove that one's support of Donald Trump cannot possibly be driven by racism.

It is a very good thing that people do not want to be called racists.  One way to try not to be called a racist is to scream bloody murder when one's racism is called out.  Another way would be not to support a racist president and a party that no longer even bothers with the racist dog-whistling of the Southern Strategy.  People who do not want to be thought racists can do better.


Michael C. Dorf said...

Or, as in the case of Mark Meadows, "some of the people working in the Trump administration are Black."

Shag from Brookline said...

This NYTimes column of 2/27/19 "The Deepening ‘Racialization’ of American Politics -
Obama was a lightning rod. Trump is a lightning strike." By Thomas B. Edsall is quite informative on the subject.

Joe said...

The first comment alludes to a high point in the Cohen Hearings yesterday though once the three frosh women members of Congress (including AOC, my own rep.) on that committee ask questions, you generally can bet something good will happen.

Rep. Tlaib tossed in a comment that basically called something Meadows did as racist. He was upset, saying he was being called a racist (she denied she directly said that, in part since House rules would make that a no no, probably) and wanted it stricken. This led to her repeating what she said and the (African-American) chairman at one point to say "I feel your pain" to the Rep. Meadows. Poor stricken white man.


"My female spouse would be surprised to learn that I am a sexist."

This is a telling point, really, not just a flippant remark. Me and fellow commenter Shag know someone online who is a Trump supporter who used that "my non-white wife" sentiment to sarcastically reply to those accusing him of racism.

The honest among us will admit that we have prejudices. But, it is a touchy thing. It came up when same sex marriage cases were decided in the courts. People were quite upset at being called "bigots" or something for supporting denying people their rights. Such terms, having a singular quality to them (like being called a "liar") is somewhat problematic.

And, prudentially it is something you need to finesse. We saw this when Hillary Clinton apparently lost the election for (correctly) talking about Trump supporters as "deplorables" in one speech. But, I think the Democratic nominees will have to address it bluntly to some extent. When the issue of reparations is again being raised (Kamala Harris avoided supporting them), facing up the the racism of Trump voters (or at least what enabled him) will have to be addressed somehow.

Shag from Brookline said...

I read Thomas Edsall's column last night after hearing on radio portions of Michael Cohen's testimony before the House Oversight Committee:

“Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” President Donald Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen said in closing remarks before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday evening.

This is most disturbing but may be based upon knowledge of Trump's supporters. Cohen in his testimony described Trump, inter alia, as a racist. Trump has alluded to potential reactions to the various investigations of Trump. And recall during the general election campaign Trump's reference that if Clinton won, she would be subject to many investigations, with "vague" references to 2nd A adherents.

NFJ said...

Well, Neil for the official accounting I became an avid reader of DOL from reading Newsweek. I understand how I could be missed in the official count since I don't send you hate mail.
As a white Male, there is a pervasive attitude that permeates social circles, that a single kind act of kindness can wipe away a lifetime of subtle prejudice. I also feel that people excuse racist thoughts through some collective misunderstanding of the 1st amendments rights. As if the action of harboring racist thoughts isn't objectionable, only acting on them. Not to say I welcome the idea of Orwellian thought police but instead feel that the only way to bring about a harmonious culture is to purge the very racist instincts in ourselves.

On a side note it's been a pleasure to been a daily reader of DOL. You all do amazing work.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Many thanks to all for the interesting comments. And a special thanks to NFJ for coming along for the ride!

Shag from Brookline said...

Maine's former Governor Paul LePage, who could not keep Maine glued, complains that state attempts to circumvent the Electoral College will be harmful to whites. During LePage's governorship he did not like Maniacs' efforts at democracy.

David Ricardo said...

In the old days, when there were still Honor Codes, a typical code would read

I will not lie, steal or cheat and I will not tolerate lying, stealing or cheating in others.

So a perfectly honest person would still be in violation of the honor code if he or she tolerated lying, stealing or cheating in others. The point, even if one is not a racist or does not engage in racist activities and speech, if one tolerates or supports or does not speak out against others who are racist then that person may be regarded as racist. Yes, we are talking about the 'holier than thou', 'some of my best friends are black' supporters of Trump.

Shag from Brookline said...

This NYTimes 2/28/19 Op-Ed: "Republicans’ Race to the Bottom - The absurdity of denying Trump’s bigotry." By Michelle Goldberg lays out the case utilizing yesterday's House Oversight Committee hearing of witness Michael Cohen as an example.

Joe said...

It's a bit like an old Walter Matthau movie, "A Guide for the Married Man," where someone is advising him on denying adultery, even if you are caught in the act.

egarber said...

I think white defensiveness is one of the reasons we often can’t make true progress in this area. To most white people, the racists are always somebody else, those who are overtly hateful. “Oh that’s not me - I work with black people and have black friends. How dare you lump me in with those Charlottesville protesters!”

But as we move forward, it’s not really about defeating the outright nut jobs. Those people are lost and can be marginalized. But critically, they’re not the only ones with a race problem - the real battle relates to the subconscious prejudice the rest of us harbor. If we’re to be real, anybody who says they don’t experience racially-motivated impulses is likely full of it. The bottom line is that we all do, given a variety of factors: how we were raised, depiction of minorities in the media, even primitive biology (non-pre-frontal cortex components in the brain).

So to me, the real question isn’t, “am I a racist?”, defined as a KKK member or neo-Nazi. Few of us would actually fit that description (thank goodness). Instead it’s what are you doing as an individual human being when you have a racially-motivated impulse? Are you soul-searching? Are you examining what you could do in reaction the next time you feel the impulse? Are you talking with friends across the racial spectrum for feedback on the blinds spots that come with your white privilege?

Put another way, I’m not going to blame you if you have a visceral impulse, but I will offer criticism if you do nothing about it and act insensitively/recklessly. If you deny that white privilege exists, and if you persist in thinking you’re not part of the problem, in a way you’re worse than the KKK dude, because you’re in total denial of your flaws. That writ large is why institutional racism remains hardened; it’s not because of the 20-25% of the country who are KKK-type racists. The latter are sort of like dinosaurs screaming at the asteroid. The former are largely self-righteous folks who think they’re above it, but in reality are not.

Shag from Brookline said...

Regarding the Michael Cohen closing statement quote in my 2:06 PM comment yesterday, John Dean in his Op-Ed in the NYTimes March 1, 2019, making comparisons between him and Cohen makes reference to Cohen's closing statement and follows up by contacting Lanny Davis, Cohen's attorney/advisor, to get a better handle on Cohen's closing comments. Dean notes that his Nixon was an authoritarian and so is Cohen's Trump..

Joe said...

egarber says it well ... also, I read something where Cohen specifically said he wants to be Trump's Dean ... Dean testifying to Congress was a major beginning of the end.