Renée Graham

Your racist uncle was never funny

Illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

Your uncle tossing around the n-word isn’t funny.

Your sister-in-law saying “those people,” when referring to African-Americans or Latinx, isn’t quirky.

Your high school pal isn’t “just playing around” during his xenophobic rants.

They are racists. Or, as they are more commonly known these days, President Trump’s base.

That four-letter word — base — gets used a lot in regard to this presidency, and for good reason. These aren’t just supporters of a particular political ideology or party. They are the tireless defenders of a demagogue who is imperiling democracy and turbocharging this nation’s most hideous impulses.

And yes, those impulses existed long before Trump.


So while Trump’s racism should be called out every time it occurs, and that’s likely to be every day between now and Nov. 3, 2020, his supporters must also be condemned — whether they’re in the halls of Congress, your house of worship, and especially among your friends and family. They are the ones who continue to prop up this failure of a presidency; without them, his rapt audience, Trump is nothing.

I have no doubt that this presidency has been hell on family gatherings. Politics has always been a tricky topic at the dinner table. Even in years past, we often took care to avoid it. Of course, this never stopped those relatives determined to go there as they spouted certifiable lies about Obamacare “death panels” or President Obama as some kind of Kenyan-born Muslim version of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

This ill-informed white nonsense was never laughable — it was a racist reaction to this nation’s first black president. Yet it was rarely regarded as such, especially when such talk came from friends and relatives.

(Still obsessed with delegitimizing the Obama presidency, 51 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Trump voters continue to believe Obama was born outside of this country.)


When it comes to those we know and love, people often treat racism as a kind of personality glitch, like swearing too much or overstaying one’s welcome. It’s not. It’s an insidious mindset rooted in hate and supremacist politics that interrupts and ends black and brown lives. And Trump understood this about America — there is always a marketplace for racism, which has been coddled and codified for centuries. Dog whistles were best left to those still clinging to a shred of political correctness; a bullhorn, Trump knew, reaches the racists who demand their bigotry served bold and uncut.

Unlike past presidents, Trump cannot be parsed or sifted. You can’t enjoy the strong economy, and ignore the roiling racism that is the origin story of his campaign, presidency, and bid for a second term.

Anyone who voted for Trump must own it. All of it. If they continue to support a racist president, they’ve invited that rot in the White House to infest their living rooms. And every time a relative or friend spews their prejudice unchallenged, you normalize it. Every time you nervously laugh along or ignore it, you till the soil in which Trump’s political ascension found purchase.

During these gutting two-plus years, I’ve often thought of the 1996 book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.” Author Daniel Goldhagen, a former Harvard professor, argues that many everyday Germans not only knew about the Holocaust as it happened but, fueled by anti-Semitism, actively encouraged it.


That’s how I view not only Trump supporters but also those who claim to despise racism yet refuse to call it out where and when they see it. No one wants estrangement within their families, but that kitchen-table racism deserves no less of a harsh rebuke than Trump’s tweets. And it will register more of an impact.

Through numerous Gallup polls, no president since Harry Truman enjoyed such steady approval ratings as Trump. To be sure, his numbers are notably lousy — 35 to 45 percent — but they’ve also barely budged compared with his more recent predecessors. He’s not gaining support. Still, even after destructive decisions, and a disposition akin to a poked bear stepping on a Lego, his supporters are locked into this ride even if takes them, and the country they claim they alone love, straight into the abyss.

Calling out Trump’s racism is the easy part. Confronting, or shunning if necessary, that racist uncle aiding and abetting this presidency may help banish the orange elephant in the room.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.