Defining things as racist is like that exercise swim instructors do, where they tell kids to swim to them but keep walking backwards so the goal is never actually reached. Except in this exercise, the American public is trying to agree on whether something is racist or not, and the swim instructor is the ever-receding standard for whichever horrid slur or xenophobic immigration policy can actually be labeled as such.
Case in point: the recent scandal over Omarosa breaking ranks at the White House and spilling the beans in her book. According to Omarosa, there is a tape (which she may or may not have heard? I don’t know, man) of Trump saying the n-word. Speculation about the tape is now everywhere — especially since Trump sent some nasty, very racist tweets about Omarosa herself.
The White House, of course, denies that anything about this is racist. If you trusted what the White House says (but like, why would you), nothing is actually racist. Not oh-so-subtle comments about immigration and demographic changes, or about Latino men being endemically sexually violent, or about how in the battle between neo-Nazis and antifa, “both sides” are kind of wrong. Meanwhile, white nationalist Jared Taylor isn’t racist, according to Jared Taylor, because being racist is a bad thing and lord forbid a white nation-state sound like a bad thing.
As an article from NPR’s Gene Demby points out, people feel racism is wrong, but aren’t great at confronting its manifestations — thus the definition of racism becomes endlessly elastic, that swim instructor forever out of grasp. As Demby writes:
One of the many victories of the civil rights movement was casting racism as a moral failure of our society. But that’s had the bizarre consequence of confounding the issue for many Americans, who have never been especially literate about race to begin with. That’s how we’ve ended up in a place where anyone of any political stripe can use racist as a cudgel, no matter how outlandish the allegation . . . less cynical Americans seem to look at racism in an equally odd way: Good people should endeavor to be colorblind and never talk about race or its unequal effects on how we live. And real racism is the province of a small cohort of uncomplicated knuckle-draggers whose presence is overstated by the ax-grinding, “identity politics” crowd.
Now, if it is true that Donald Trump used or uses the n-word, that would be despicable, because white people should not use the n-word. Full stop. Words have power, and it’s a terrible word for a reason. That reason is centuries of material, social, and cultural oppression all summed up in a demeaning speech act.
Beyond that, this particular scandal should not mean much, because at this point, we shouldn’t be debating whether the President is racist. As the inimitable Sam Sanders of NPR’s It’s Been a Minute summed up (yes guys, I’m on summer break, I listen to a lot of NPR):
So yeah, all of this is condemnable, but it’s also old news. Pretending this is an actual debate is playing directly into the hands of those who benefit from racism in general, and those who benefit from being actively racist in particular.
There’s another reason that it’s kind of useless, at this point, to debate whether Trump is racist or not. Even if we somehow got everyone to agree on this fact (unlikely) and agree that this fact is bad (also unlikely) and agree to reflect on the structural and systemic nature of this bad fact (most unlikely), we would still only be at the very beginning, because agreeing that something is racist is a baby step toward righting systemic and structural injustice.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good Trump scandal as much as the next disenchanted (but still genuinely idealist) leftist. It’s like watching a reality show in real time, except this reality show is the bare violence of the American political and economic system after the veneer of politeness has been burned in the fire of Trump’s orange hair. In context of the horrific injustice which has always been part of the American story (and part of the human story, of course, alongside some pretty beautiful, transformative stuff), clutching our pearls because the president doesn’t seem “presidential” (another code name for racism), is not the most effective way to create social change. There are a gazillion things I could think of that we should be devoting more air time to than this.
There’s some efficacy in covering the endless Trump scandal loop, in terms of bringing people out to vote in midterms, keeping people engaged in politics, and starting deeper conversations on these issues. There’s also, of course, a fundamental role for good journalism in constantly endeavoring to hold the White House accountable.
But change happens through movements, and all the hot takes in the world can’t start those.
Read the original article at Feministing.