Defining Racism

I am at a loss.

In spite of the rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump, which reeked of racism and sexism, Trump and his surrogates insist he is not a racist.

Neither, they say, is Stephen K. Bannon, who served as candidate Trump’s campaign chairman and who ran, Breitbart News, the platform for what is called the “alt-right.” The alt-right adheres to the belief that the United States is supposed to be a white man’s country.” Richard Spencer, leader of the alt-right movement, said as late as last Saturday that the alt-right is a “white identity movement.”

Spencer said that many people who voted for Trump will not admit that at its core, the support for the president-elect is mired in identity politics. In a recent article, Spencer said, “White identity is at the core of both the alt-right movement and the Trump movement, even if most voters for Mr. Trump “aren’t willing to articulate it as such.”(

A cry of protest, “we want to take our country back”  has been loud and persistent ever since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and again in 2012. Many heard that statement as dog-whistle language, putting out the message that people of color had gotten out of their place. The country was becoming “too brown,” and the ascendancy of Obama, a black man, to the White House, was the last straw. The Tea Party was formed, many believed, not merely as a backlash against the passage of the Affordable Care Act, but against the election of Obama, and as a protest against establishment politics which had allowed the situation to develop.

At the heart of the backlash that erupted after Obama’s election was racial identity politics. In private circles, white people would admit it; I know it because enough of my white friends have said the same. But in public, whites – in politics and out – have insisted they are not racist, despite supporting a political movement which is based, it seems, in the belief that America’s whites have been marginalized and disrespected.

So, what is racism, exactly? One woman in an interview on NPR last week said, “this word racism is used so much that it’s losing its effectiveness.” Other white people have outright laughed even as they have totally rejected the notion that they are racist.

It seems that people are confused. I have heard white people declare they are not racist because they do not use the “n” word and do not wear white sheets. They have black friends …and they voted for Barack Obama. That ought to be proof, they say.

They deny that there is such a thing as institutional racism, implemented and supported by the power structure  – which in this case is based in white supremacy – in determination to maintain its power. They deny that people of color and of different religions have been used to bolster the economic and political power of the white ruling class.

They deny that voter suppression has been a part of American history from the beginning. Black people have been seen as being “a problem,” as W.E.B. DuBois once wrote, and every effort has been made down through the years to keep blacks from gaining too much of a political presence.

That’s not opinion. That’s historical fact.

Donald Trump’s followers have been openly racist, many of them, in their language and attitudes toward people of color.  Indeed, Mr. Trump’s history reveals that he has been less than supportive of black people in this nation.

But he’s not racist. Right?

I need someone to tell me, explain to me, what the white definition of “racist” and “racism” is. If we are not seeing racism walking this land now, then what is it we are seeing?  When Donald Trump stood up and warned his followers, for example, to “watch the voting in “certain areas” because, he said, “we all know” that voter fraud goes on in these areas, what was he saying? I think we all know …but nobody wants to say it. If implying that in areas where a large number of minorities vote is automatically prone to have voter fraud is not racist, then what is it?

People get immediately defensive if called racist, and yet, the speech and actions of so many people say that they believe in the concept of white superiority. Their speech and actions say that they want their country “back,” back to a day and time where white supremacy ruled unfettered, not having to worry about so many people  of color in this, the country that many believe was and is supposed to be for white people.

There is a need for reconciliation between the races in this country – most specifically between white people and native Americans and white people and people of African descent. But reconciliation and therefore the “healing” that everyone is talking about is and will be impossible unless and until we come to a consensus of what racism is. White people deny not only that they are racist but that racism as an entity even exists anymore.

That is a problem …and it also is not true.

Ask Richard Spencer and participants in the alt-right movement, and then go to a respectable gathering of establishment white people  and ask the same question. Over a glass of wine, the educated and uneducated alike will admit what few will admit publicly – that of course, most of what is going on is evidence of the racism which still runs rampant in this country.

A candid observation…




One thought on “Defining Racism

  1. It’s like this: [At the risk of being seen as white-splaining.]

    Don’t wait around for parades of jack-booted thugs to convince you we’re on the cusp of fascism. It is the ones who wrap themselves in the US flag RIGHT NOW that we have to worry about, the ones who manifest white-exclusivity without openly proclaiming they are racist … the ones who think they AREN’T bigoted, but have issues with people different than themselves; issues that “aren’t personal”. Fascism in its earliest stages is insidious … it all seems like mom-and-apple-pie until it’s too late. ‘Sieg Heil’ Spencer and the others ‘playing Nazi’ with all the WW II German trappings are genuine idiots … Trump is the true fascist, and a few fascisti smart enough to realize it are gathering ’round. They are smart enough NOT to brandish Nazi flags or click their heels together and shout ‘sieg heil’.

    Likewise, racism is insidious. If you’re white, I as a white anti-racist activist and trainer will not insist you call yourself ‘a racist’ (though some others will, sort of like the ‘I am an alcoholic’ routine in AA). But I will strongly question you if you assert that you have no racism in you. One of the keys is to carefully distinguish between racism and bigotry. You can refer to racism validly as a larger phenomenon involving many people, but you cannot refer to bigotry in the same way. Using the word ‘bigot’ seems to me to be appropriate in cases where you are talking about a single individual, not a group. Each such case deserves its own careful examination and analysis, partly because bigotry is so reprehensible.

    That leaves racism somewhat more ‘socially acceptable’ so long as one is very carefully framing the reference. Referring to someone other than yourself as ‘a racist’ accomplishes practically nothing.

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