Racism is dead, long live racism.
For years, researchers have argued that the (misguided) social norm of colorblindness changed the rules of racial engagement in politics. Voters have grown hostile to overtly racist appeals and racial language, so when modern candidates want to stoke racial fears, they usually do so indirectly, with dog whistles and coded language. Donald Trump, however, tests the limits of this theory. He sounds the dog whistle loud enough to shatter glass and built a mountain from the molehill of birtherism, a racially coded conspiracy theory former RNC Chair Michael Steele eloquently described as “bullshit racism.”
Despite his baseless and bigoted attacks on President Obama, Trump and his surrogates insist he has “a great relationship with the blacks.” This is, of course, untrue, as polling consistently suggests the opposite. But Trump’s dissonance is illustrative of an even more troubling phenomenon, especially as the first debate approaches: the remarkable persistence of “racism without racists,” a phrase coined and explained by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Even though the truly evil racists seem to have disappeared, support for policies and narratives sustain racial inequality remains powerful as ever.
A few days ago, Kathy Miller, a Trump volunteer chair from Ohio provided a perfect example of this trend. Miller said there was no racism before Obama was elected, and “If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault.” When faced with criticism, she could not understand what she had done wrong, and asked, “What did I say that was racist?” Ignoring or denying persistent, documented, and legally condemned discrimination against people of color and blaming them for their own suffering is, in fact, racist. Still, Miller and others remain confused.
Which brings us to the debates, which are sure to be equally confusing. Each side will insist they won. Some facts will be checked, and others will not, and viewers desperately need the moderator to maintain a firm grip on reality, as Trump insists on living in his own dystopian fantasy world. Though veteran debate moderator and journalist Bob Schieffer warns, “Nobody goes to a ballgame to watch the umpire,” we need someone to clearly call out the balls and strikes. And when it comes to racism in America, we need courage and clarity about what racism is and how the candidates plan to address it.
Trump has an arsenal of offensive beliefs and statistics that should force the moderator to broach these topics. In 2015, Trump tweeted that blacks killed 81 percent of white homicide victims. He also suggested that Mexican immigrants are little more than drug dealers and criminals. More recently, Trump’s son circulated an equally deceitful and bigoted graphic comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles. Whoever moderates the debate has an obligation to directly refute such vile nonsense. There is no statistical basis for these suggestions, and again, the entire purpose of such appeals is to fan the flames of ethnic bigotry and xenophobia. These appeals, along with prideful ignorance about world affairs and naked sexism, are the heart of the Trump campaign.
Of course, the bigotry of Trump’s campaign won’t be the only racially charged topic at the upcoming debates, as police killings of black people and resultant protests continue unabated. There are some, like North Carolina Congressman Robert Pittenger, who continue to misconstrue the facts, suggesting, “The grievance in their [protestors’] mind is — the animus, the anger — they hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” Such narratives ignore the stated purpose and demands of the protestors and run parallel to the sort of racism via denial peddled by Miller.
If the debate moderator has the courage to ask a direct question about racism and police violence, nobody expects the candidates to simply dismiss the killing and protests the way Pittenger did. Trump is likely to pivot towards a further condemnation of the imaginary crime epidemic and promise to solve any and all related problems by being tougher than Clinton. More earnest attempts to analyze the intersection of racism and police shootings are often shaped by discussion of bias, which undoubtedly influences officers’ decisions to shoot. But the problem with bias is that it reduces the epidemic to a series of individual failures. And because bias is a natural cognitive process, deadly mistakes in those situations are viewed as almost inevitable.
Obsessing over bias and individual prejudice as the essence of racism can impede systemic change. The most powerful anti-racist efforts require more than developing litmus tests for exposing the “real” racists, or merely saying the words “Black Lives Matter.” They require institutional upheaval.
If we are to explore such possibilities, we need presidential debates where candidates address the demilitarization of police and revisit processes of internal investigation and the expectations placed upon state prosecutors. We need debates where candidates discuss court cases like Graham vs. Connor (1989), which grants extreme leeway to police officers who use deadly force, with the same fervor and depth that we discuss Roe vs. Wade.
These are not “racial issues” in the traditional sense, but they are fundamental to institutional racism. They must be openly discussed, rather than drowned out by the sounds of dog whistles, empty promises to return to law and order, and platitudes about rebuilding trust between police. Our democracy and our lives depend on it.
Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of “Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.”