During an appearance this week on “CBS This Morning,” former secretary of state Colin Powell was asked by cohost Charlie Rose if he was dismayed by the racism that has marred the 2016 election.
“I never use the term ‘racism’ in describing anything, because you immediately shut down conversation,” Powell said. “What I have said over time is there are elements in my party, the Republican Party, that show some level of intolerance that I don’t think is worthwhile for the party to demonstrate.”
“Elements in my party . . . that show some level of intolerance.” That’s an awful lot of words when one — racist — would have sufficed. Never mind that, in an e-mail leaked Tuesday, Powell had no problem calling the odious “birther” movement, closely tied to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, “racist.” Then again, that e-mail expressing Powell’s true beliefs about bigotry and politics was never meant for public consumption.
When did calling someone racist become a more egregious act than racism itself? It’s as if the fragile feelings of those stewing in and spewing hate are all that matter. Heaven forbid anyone should utter anything to offend racists while such bigots are offending everyone else; then the conversation flips from cause to effect with a speed and dexterity that would make Simone Biles jealous.
This disingenuous sleight of hand could likely be traced to various moments in our history, but let’s start in 2008, when racists tried to discredit the man who would become this nation’s first African-American president, by denying the fact of his native-born citizenship. Of course, this was pure racism. Black people knew – we always knew – that this was meant to demean and dishonor Barack Obama because of his race. It goes a long way in explaining Trump’s historically dismal polling among African-Americans as this nation staggers toward November. So-called birthers were considered merely conspiracy nuts; what they weren’t called is exactly what they were and still are — racists.
All these years later, nothing has been learned. Trump launched his campaign with a racist tirade against Mexicans, and the media called his words “inflammatory” and “controversial.” Not a single mainstream outlet, whether print, television, or online, dared to brand his remarks for what they were. Eventually, they would speak of dog whistles, but Trump has never been a man acquainted with such subtleties; this was bullhorn bigotry.
Now Trump wants an apology from Hillary Clinton for suggesting that half of his supporters belong in what she called “a basket of deplorables.” She piled on, calling them “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” Yes, Trump supporters, like their revolting ringmaster, are deplorable. They are also intransigent, logic-resistant, and violent lemmings terrified of this nation inching any closer to its majestic, still unfulfilled aspirations.
Eight years ago, many cooed of a “post-racial America,” as if a black president alone could absolve this nation’s sins. When racism was no longer manifested by constant lynchings and flaming crosses, when mentioning racism meant being buried by cries of political correctness, it shape-shifted into something too many were willing to tolerate or ignore. In this pernicious climate, a racist has become the nominee of a major party, his many prejudices fashioned into a political platform.
Never ambiguous, racism must be identified at every opportunity. Those who agonize about calling someone racist should have far more concern and consideration for those targeted by it. Pinpointing racism does not, as Powell suggested, “shut down” the conversation. During this election, it is the conversation, whether or not we are willing to speak candidly about it. Lives are at stake. We must reject tortured euphemisms for racism that give undeserved cover to racists and embolden Trump’s atrocity of a campaign.
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.