Racism Is Playing a Central Role in This Election

It strikes me that, beyond Donald Trump’s involvement in the whole birtherism controversy and his obvious affinity for the white nationalists of the alt-right, much of this election comes down to an exhibition of racism. Here are just a few things that have happened in the last couple of days.

During his so-called “outreach” to African Americans (which is actually aimed at white people), Donald Trump said this:

“We’re going to rebuild our inner cities because our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before,” Trump told a crowd in Kenansville. “Ever, ever, ever.”

One could write a dissertation on just how wrong that is. So I’ll let President Obama take it on.

“I think even most 8-year-olds will tell you that whole slavery thing wasn’t very good for black people. Jim Crow wasn’t very good for black people,” Obama told ABC.

“It’s unrealistic to think that somehow that all just completely went away, because the Civil Rights Act was passed or because Oprah’s making a lot of money or because I was elected president,” he continued. “You know, that’s not how society works. And if you have hundreds of years of racial discrimination it’s likely that the vestiges of that discrimination linger on. And we should acknowledge that and own that.”

Just yesterday Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, said this:

“We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias,” Pence said during a roundtable with pastors in a Colorado Springs church on Thursday afternoon…

At a separate rally in the city later in the afternoon, Pence specifically called out Hillary Clinton for engaging in that divisiveness after she denounced “systemic racism” during a campaign speech in Orlando on Wednesday.

To be honest, I can’t tell if Pence is suggesting that institutional racism doesn’t exist, or if he just thinks we ought to ignore it. Either way, he’s wrong.

Finally, a North Carolina Congressman just said this:

The grievance in their minds — the animus, the anger — they hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not. It is a welfare state. We have spent trillions of dollars on welfare, and we’ve put people in bondage, so they can’t be all they’re capable of being.

Congressman Pittenger eventually apologized. His initial words were beyond the pale – but didn’t veer that much from regular Republican talking points.

I suspect that a lot of people wonder whether these kinds of events indicate that racism is on the rise in this country. My view is that it never went away. For years it simply felt like that to a lot of white people because it was rarely discussed so openly.

In order to understand what changed, I usually go back to something Derrick Jensen wrote in “The Culture of Make Believe.” He says that this kind of hatred is ultimately based on a sense of entitlement. And then he writes this:

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

The growing cultural and institutional power of African Americans has threatened that sense of entitlement and the “normalization” of hate. We are now witnessing the explosion.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.