We should stop referring to Donald Trump as a racist.
Racism—the “belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities”—is a personal and individual principle that only exists in theory. Racism cannot be objectively measured or detected, as it is always subject to interpretation. Because of this, it is easily denied by people who insist God “knows their hearts,” and after a thorough Jesus-approved evaluation, was unable to find a “racist bone” in their bodies.
White supremacy, however, is different. Although we have been led to believe that white supremacy is the superlative form of racism, it is not. Nor is white supremacy synonymous with racism (which is why we have to modify the word “racism” by adding “systemic” to create an approximate equivalent term). White supremacy is the institutional phenomenon that produces favorable social, economic and political outcomes for white people.
One does not need to believe that Black folks are more violent to build a system that sentences Black men to 20 percent longer sentences than white men convicted of the same crimes. The reason that Black voters have to wait longer to cast a ballot than white voters has nothing to do with a theoretical hypothesis. White people’s individual or collective assumptions are immaterial ingredients to America’s education disparities, the racial wealth gap or disproportionate officer-involved shootings. These quantifiable, incontrovertible disparities are just a few of the manifestations of white supremacy and are not dependent on racial hatred.
America might be racist but it is undeniably a white supremacist country.
Because racism is different from white supremacy, the uncountable inequities that exist in America will not be fixed by changing this country’s beliefs. When Brown v. Board of Education outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Supreme Court ruling did not even mention the mental preferences of staunch segregationists; it changed their practices. The Civil Rights Act did not address the collective consciousness of America; it changed the law. The Voting Rights Act was a legislative mandate, not a psychological suggestion.
And, while many people hear Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and assume that he is a racist, how can we know for sure? Aside from Russian appeasement, can anyone point to a single instance of him adhering to a personal belief or moral standard besides self-aggrandizement? How can one be sure that he even has a heart in which he can house his racism? Has he, at any time, displayed the mental capacity to comprehend the requisite prejudices that the precepts of racism require?
In fact, after last week, one can argue that it is impossible for Donald Trump to be more of a white supremacist. In the past seven days, while America focused on his continued mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, he proved his white supremacist credentials beyond a shadow of a doubt. Over the span of seven days, the fascist-in-chief eschewed his dog whistle for a bullhorn, trumpeting his white nationalist, segregationist leanings to the entire nation. If Trump called a presidential news conference and declared that, going forward, he will alternately refer to all Black people as “moon crickets” and “dindus,” that would be racist. If he openly used the n-word in a morning tweet, Twitter wouldn’t do anything, and the New York Times might relent and use what they call “the r-word.” But if Donald Trump serves another four years unrestrained by the prospect of re-election or presidential protocol, he could still never aspire to match the level of white supremacy that he has already reached. It is impossible.
Donald Trump might be a racist but he is undoubtedly a white supremacist.
Of all the white supremacist institutions created throughout American history, when it comes to the pervasive, long-lasting effects of systemic discrimination, no other practice comes close to the government-sanctioned policy of redlining.
In 1935, Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which guaranteed low-interest loans to homeowners, created “residential security maps” that determined which neighborhoods in 239 American cities were eligible for low-interest, government-backed mortgage loans. Among the criterion in the Federal Housing Administration’s Underwriting and Valuation Procedure Manual was “whether incompatible racial and social groups are present” and the “probability of the location being invaded by such groups.” Basically, if non-white people lived in the area, the property was ineligible for the program most responsible for building America’s middle class.
Nearly every calculable effect of institutional inequality can be traced back to this 85-year-old government policy. Redlining explains why researchers at the Brookings Institute found that homes in neighborhoods where the population is majority Black are valued, on average, $48,000 less than homes in white neighborhoods, even when the white neighborhoods have the same amenities, crime rates and resources as the Black neighborhoods. Redlining was outlawed in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act, but it still affects almost every economic aspect of Black communities to this day: bail amounts, school funding, auto insurance rates; credit decisions and how police patrol neighborhoods.
So, on July 29, when Donald Trump tweeted a dog whistle to the people who were “living the suburban dream” he wasn’t just rescinding an Obama-era rule that literally affirmed the Fair Housing Act. His assurance to white suburban voters that they “will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood” and that their “housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down,” was a throwback to one of the foundational institutions of white supremacy.
It was white supremacy perfected.
But wait, there’s more.
On May 4, 1961, seven Black civil rights activists and six white demonstrators (including future Georgia Congressman John Lewis) boarded buses in Washington, D.C., to protest segregation of interstate travel. When the buses reached Birmingham, Ala., Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, guaranteed the Imperial Wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan a police-free 15 minutes of alone time with the Freedom Riders to deliver one of the most egregious acts of white supremacist violence in modern history.
When Connor famously said “the trouble with this country is communism, socialism, and journalism,” he was echoing the sentiments of some of the most powerful segregationists in the country. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond referred to the civil rights movement as a “communist plot” before leading the Southern white supremacist exodus to the Republican Party. After Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared that he would “never be out-niggered,” he explained that “a racist is one who despises someone because of his color, and an Alabama segregationist is one who conscientiously believes that it is in the best interest of Negro and white to have a separate education and social order.”
When Donald Trump created a secret police force to attack and imprison peaceful protesters in Portland, Ore., he said he was trying to “stop the Crime and Violence from the Anarchists and Agitators,” which sounded a lot like Bull Connor’s warning to Freedom Riders:
“I am saying now to these meddlers from out of our city the best thing for them to do is stay out if they don’t want to get slapped in jail. Our people of Birmingham are a peaceful people and we never have any trouble here unless some people come into our city looking for trouble. And I’ve never seen anyone yet look for trouble who wasn’t able to find it” —Bull Connor, 1962
A white supremacist said this:
“And it is a sad day in our country that you cannot walk even in your neighborhoods at night or even in the daytime because both national parties, in the last number of years, have kowtowed to every group of anarchists that have roamed the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and throughout the country.” —George Wallace, 1968
And a white supremacist also said this:
Perhaps the most unapologetic form of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era was the racialized voter suppression strategy that barred Black people from participating in American democracy. Because the vast majority of Black Americans lived in the South, white Southerners maintained their political power by keeping Black people away from the polls until Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing race-based voter suppression...kinda.
Now Trump wants to bring it back.
Despite studies that show mail-in ballots don’t benefit a particular party, Trump has threatened to withhold funding from states that allow mail-in-ballots, although he is willing to concede that absentee ballots are OK because he uses them. Five states already mail ballots to every registered voter. But after Nevada’s legislature passed a law to become the eighth (California and Vermont passed similar provisions earlier this year, as did Washington, D.C., making it the ninth jurisdiction to do so), Trump threatened to sue.
That’s right, based on nothing more than his Jim Crow era goal of reducing access to the ballot, Trump is publicly pushing for fewer people to have access to the ballot. And, perhaps to solidify his position as the most powerful white supremacist in American history, Donald Trump capped off his white supremacist week with an awesome show of unapologetic white supremacy.
Asked by interviewer Jonathan Swan how history would remember Lewis’s contributions to the nation, Trump demurred.
“I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis,” Trump said in the “Axios on HBO” interview. “He chose not to come to my inauguration.”
Pressed by Swan on whether he found Lewis “impressive,” Trump was likewise noncommittal.
“I can’t say one way or another,” Trump said, before noting again that Lewis had skipped his inauguration and his State of the Union speeches, adding, “Nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should have come. I think he made a big mistake.”
Let’s get this straight. This was not racism.
On more occasions than we can count, the late John Lewis put his very existence in the palms of his hands and humbly offered it in exchange for nothing more than the opportunity to be included in the American democracy. He was the target of Bull Connor’s Klan-beatings. He fought George Wallace’s segregationist Gestapo and let them crack his skull. Lewis was one of the freedom fighters who Strom Thurmond called “red pawns and publicity seekers.” John Lewis laid down his life to stop everything that Donald Trump stands for.
But Trump doesn’t hate John Lewis because Lewis is Black.
The reason that Donald Trump, the president of the United States, could not bear to set aside his petty political differences for even a second and even acknowledge the humanity of that great American saint, was that Lewis’ 60 years dedicated to perfecting the American democracy was in Trump’s mind, inconsequential when compared to Lewis opting out of Trump’s presidential probate show.
And that, dear friend, is white supremacy.
Donald Trump is the Bull Connor of George Wallaces. And if we have learned anything over the past seven days, it is this:
Donald Trump will not be “out-niggered.”