Black Americans and white Americans don’t experience race the same way. Given that, it should surprise no one that we don’t speak or think about it similarly. We have to find a way to bridge that divide.
Like it or not, too many white allies and potential allies are so deep in denial about racism that they haven’t been able to grapple with racial complexity, no matter how many times and in how many ways it’s been pointed out to them. The only racism they can acknowledge is that in which the intent is obviously and overwhelmingly blatant. That’s why they have no problem recognizing David Duke’s racism but are split on Donald Trump, even though Duke rightly said Trump has adopted much of Duke’s worldview. Their vocabulary is too limited, too black-and-white if you will.
That’s why I’ve come up with a few terms to better explain our reality, which we’ll need going forward the closer we get to being a majority-minority nation. As the U.S. population continues to diversify—a good thing—black-and-white definitions about racism will become even harder for many white Americans to accept. We are already seeing this occur, given that many white people believe racism is a bigger threat to white people than black people.
A few years ago during a race-relations workshop, a white woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“What should I do about my friend?” she asked.
Her friend was repeatedly taking advantage of her kindness. She’d lend money. Her friend would never pay her back, then ask for more. Her friend asked to borrow the car at odd and inconvenient times. She’d always hand her the keys. Her friend would leave her kids at her house to go run “errands” that really weren’t errands and she would never say no.
Her friend was black.
“If your friend were white, would you do anything differently?” I asked.
“Of course!” she said.
“Then do that,” I quickly returned.
She eventually did, telling her friend the gravy train was ending.
“OK,” the friend told her. “You could have just said no.”
The woman was suffering from what I call compassionate racism when white people treat black people not as equals, but as rambunctious pets who need to be tolerated more than respected. A piece in the New York Times entitled “How can I cure my white guilt?” was dripping with compassionate racism.
The Racism of Arrogance
Members of the supposed “intellectual dark web” are the primary practitioners of this kind of racism. They will be so outraged by being associated with any form of racism they’ll use this designation, and their perpetual victimhood status, to sell even more books and make even more millions. But the label fits because the arrogance of the belief in their rightness has left them convinced they can learn nothing from the long history of intellectual pursuits that have been used for racist ends, a problem that goes back to at least Aristotle.
They seem not to care that white supremacists are giddily using their arguments to provide a supposed scientific veneer for white supremacist arguments that black people aren’t as smart as white people.
Fans of the team based in our nation’s capital proudly cheer for an organization named for a literal racist slur. If you dare suggest such ugly imagery should be mothballed in 21st century America, you become the real racist because you are supposedly getting in the way of their enjoyment of the game. They don’t stop to think that changing a name to make it less racist only takes away something from those married to the idea that racism should be commonplace.
The Racism of Tradition
There’s been considerable debate about whether Donald Trump voters are animated more by an ill-defined economic angst or racial animus. I say they are driven by a traditional racism, one that prioritizes the comfort of the way things have always been, even if it means hurting the black people they call their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Many of them—I attended church with white Evangelicals for nearly two decades—aren’t intentionally trying to hurt black people. They end up supporting racist policies because they’ve been convinced that real racism went out with the Civil Rights Act. They have neither the historical knowledge nor everyday experiences to help them see more clearly. While there are plenty of white Americans who go along with racist policies because it helps ensure their wants and needs will be forever prioritized, there are plenty of others who are, frankly, just clueless about race and want guidance.
But if forced to choose between black people being harmed or sharing the stage upon which white people have always been centered—white people’s view of the world deemed the right one, their principles the default good—their self-interest will win out. That has little to do with their economic fates. It was what they chose when the white middle class was booming and being underwritten by federal policies in the mid-20th century. It’s what 58 percent of white people did in November 2016. It’s what 90 percent of Republicans signaled in polling data this summer when they said they approved of Trump’s job performance.
It matters little if they voted for Barack Obama once or even twice. Racism is seldom that neat. Jason Kessler reportedly voted for Obama. Kessler is also responsible for the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Va., that ended in the death of an anti-racism protester a year ago and fizzled earlier this year in Washington, D.C. It’s nonsensical to say his vote for the nation’s first black president means he can’t be racist. But that vote means he likely isn’t only racist.
Which brings us to Trump. Trump is a clear-cut racist and bigot. He and his family were sued by the Department of Justice decades ago for discriminating against black people. A former associate overheard him declaring that black people have a lazy trait. He helped create the climate that railroaded five innocent black and brown boys in the 1990s for a rape they did not commit. He associated Native Americans with crime during an ugly casino fight. He spent five years leading the bigoted birtherism movement. He kicked off his campaign calling most Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals then deemed a federal judge unfit because of his ethnicity; proposed a Muslim travel ban; referred to some immigrants as animals and an infestation; called African countries shitholes; and implemented a policy of stealing children from their parents to deter asylum-seeking and undocumented border crossings, among many other things.
You can’t do that many things over that many decades and not be considered a bigot and racist unless those words have no meaning. However, Trump’s history is also littered with friendships and business relationships with prominent black people—including the woman who was most responsible for the most recent headlines about the alleged nigger audio—and black rappers and hip-hop artists who once wanted to emulate his style. Dr. Ben Carson serves in his cabinet.
Trump’s supporters use his black friends and the low black unemployment rate as defenses against charges of racism. (Never mind that the black unemployment rate fell faster during Obama’s second term than under Trump, or that the black poverty rate had reached an all-time-low by the time Obama left office.)
Trump’s is an ends-justify-the-means racism. He will always use race in ways that will be most beneficial to his own financial and political fates. If he needs to be friends with Russell Simmons or praise Omarosa, he’ll do it. If he must create a White House agency to track crime by “illegal aliens,” roll back legal immigration to slow the browning of the United States and say athletes who peacefully kneel during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice don’t belong in the country, he’ll do that.
That he is comfortable doing such things to ensure his supporters don’t leave him says something disturbing about him. That he’s been proven right time and again says something disturbing about them.
That’s racism. But it isn’t racism alone.
It’s true that whatever the form, racism results in harmful things for black and brown people, no matter the intent or purpose of the perpetrator. It matters little if a conservative supports a policy that can potentially disenfranchise millions of (mostly) black and brown and poor Americans because he is racist or because he has bought into the (false) belief that there is rampant voter fraud. The damage is real either way.
Providing allies and potential allies with a more robust vocabulary to better understand that truth can pay big dividends. The goal isn’t to appease the unreachable but to better communicate with those ready to listen. And though it may be hard to believe and their numbers might be small, they are out there.