Don’t Let Donald Trump Rob the Word ‘Racism’ of its Meaning

White nationalists didn’t fare very well in their march yesterday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the events in Charlottesville.

White supremacists held a rally in Washington on Sunday, and almost no one but their opponents and the police showed up.

Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of last year’s violent and deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, wanted to hold an anniversary demonstration there, but the city wouldn’t let him. So he brought his show to Washington, where he hoped 400 supporters would join him for a rally at Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Fewer than 40 turned out.

The group was met by thousands of protesters who filled their half of the leafy, seven-acre park chanting “Go home, Nazis!” “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” and “Black lives matter!” They drowned out whatever message Kessler and his small band of followers had hoped to deliver — and that was their goal.

Aiming for 400 demonstrators and only getting 40 to show up is embarrassing. Mr. Kessler and his pals are either really bad organizers, or their “movement” is in pretty bad shape.

Before Sunday’s event, the specter of another white supremacist rally triggered a tweet from the president.

Once again, rather than specifically call out the white supremacists who actually caused the senseless death, Trump calls out “the riots” as the culprit and then condemns “all types of racism and acts of violence.” Keep in mind that this is the same guy who talked a lot about the “good old days” during his campaign rallies:

So what does Donald Trump mean when he says that he condemns “all types of racism”? Is he condemning himself? Because he has said and done an awful lot of racist things. Knowing this president, I doubt that he was referring to himself.

The truth is that Trump has a very different definition of the word “racist.” We know that on at least two occasions, he has called African-American journalists “racist” for challenging his racism. We recently learned about that from both Don Lemon and Jonathan Capehart.

While Trump isn’t the first white person to twist the meaning of that word beyond all recognition, what he’s done fits a pattern of disinformation and propaganda. Trump constantly takes words that pose a challenge and uses them against his opponents. One of the most prominent examples is how he co-opted the term “fake news” and now uses it to refer to any mainstream media outlet that criticizes him. Trump has done the same thing by claiming that the only collusion with Russia was on the part of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

The goal of these efforts is not to convince everyone that Don Lemon is a racist. Instead, it is to rob the word of any real meaning–as a defense against the charge. When it comes to this particular word, that is an effective technique because, for a lot of Americans, the only real meaning of the term racism is the overt kind exhibited by the white supremacists who were marching in D.C. yesterday.

There is a certain sense in which these efforts speak to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. To be labeled a “racist” is shameful for most Americans. That is perhaps why Trump’s pal Steve Bannon takes another approach. He told a gathering of French far-righters to wear words like “racist” and “nativist” as a “badge of honor.”

At this moment in time, it is critical for those who value our democratic ideals to reject all of these attempts to rob the word “racist” of its meaning. It can’t be limited to only its most overt forms, used as a defense against anyone who points out the real thing, or rehabilitated into something that engenders pride.

It’s a challenge, but for white people to truly understand what racism means, they must embark on a journey. It requires an understanding of not only individual words and actions that are racist. It also means getting the big picture of systemic racism that has been built into our institutions. Most of all, understanding racism means listening to people of color to incorporate what the world looks like from their perspective. That’s not a simple or easy process, but I’m afraid that there is no other way.

Either we let the Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons of the world spread their white supremacy by completely bastardizing the word “racist,” or we do the work that is necessary to both define and condemn it in all its forms.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.