Is bigotry somehow more innocent if it’s a pose?
Kyle Kashuv wants you to believe it is. Kashuv, now 18, is the Parkland shooting survivor, progun activist, and fan of President Donald Trump whose Harvard acceptance was rescinded this month because he’d made racist comments via text and group chat two years ago.
How racist? Mad racist: Kashuv used the N-word 11 times in one case — “like practice uhhhhhh makes perfect,” he joked. Perfect isn’t the word that comes to mind. This descendant of Holocaust survivors also flung around anti-Semitism for good measure.
Harvard rightly decided that a kid who wrote such things, and so recently, didn’t deserve a place in its halls. Since then, Kashuv’s defenders have been baying about liberal bias and cancel culture, redemption and youthful mistakes.
Please. Kashuv’s coziness with the odious NRA and other conservatives didn’t keep him from being accepted into Harvard. He’s still free to say whatever he likes, and to outgrow this dark side of himself, even if it won’t be at the private institution that has exercised its absolute right to rescind his acceptance on the basis of what it has determined is a disqualifying flaw. Every college applicant is, by definition, judged by what he or she did at 16, including 10 students whose acceptances were rescinded in 2017 after Harvard learned of their racist and sexually explicit comments in a Facebook group.
Kashuv has been arguing that he didn’t really mean the awful things he wrote.
“We were 16-year-olds making idiotic comments, using callous and inflammatory language in an effort to be as extreme and shocking as possible,” he wrote on Twitter. “I’m embarrassed by it, but I want to be clear that the comments I made are not indicative of who I am or who I’ve become in the years since.”
So, Kashuv claims he isn’t really racist. His association with Turning Points USA, a conservative group that has had a troubled recent history with bigotry (and from which he recently resigned), and his embrace of President Trump, whose long history of racist views is well-documented, incline one to suspect otherwise.
But let’s set all of that aside and take Kashuv at his word, that he was just trying to get a rise out of people by saying appalling things he doesn’t really believe.
What he’s copping to is performative bigotry or hipster racism. But it’s no less insidious and damaging. At its extreme, it’s practiced by professional provocateurs and the various entertainers at Fox News, who make bank and build national profiles by promoting white supremacist views.
Positioning themselves as heroes of free speech, they cast their hateful statements as blows against political correctness — using bigotry to shock and make mischief, often as a way to own the libs. Even if owning the libs means encouraging bigots who aren’t in on the joke.
That’s how some Trump supporters seem to see the president’s rhetoric, too. When he uses an unprintable epithet to describe African countries, and labels Muslims and Hispanic immigrants as dangerous or dirty, or both, his fans delight in Trump’s primal screed. He tells it like it is!
But making racist comments to get a rise out of people is no less damaging than really meaning it. It normalizes and emboldens bigotry all the same, whether it’s in your heart, or just on your lips.
In Trump’s case, it’s firmly settled in both locations — a fixture of his career before politics, and then a cynical campaign strategy deployed to marshall white voters who feel left behind.
And it’s a form of polluted speech that only strengthens a terrifying wave that continues to build in this country. The president’s rally in Florida on Tuesday night drew neo-fascist Proud Boys, bona fide white supremacists of the kind Trump cannot bring himself to condemn.
The line between performative racism and actual racism is so blurred as to be nonexistent when it comes to the president Kashuv admires. It doesn’t matter if Trump is not really racist, as his family and fans suggest (unconvincingly). The words do the same damage.
Kashuv says he has learned that lesson. Trump never will.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org