"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:
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.