In the aftermath of the tragic and deadly confrontations in Charlottesville between racists and opponents of racism, an uneasy sense of dread has quickly set in. No one likes where we are now, and everyone is worried about what truly horrible things might happen next.
One possibility is that Donald Trump could use America’s bigoted extremists (who adore him) to position himself as the new center of American politics. A Washington Post columnist recently painted a very plausible picture of how Trump could copy the strategy of the repressive rightwing movement that recently took over Hungary.
The idea is that Trump could nominally denounce all extremism while enabling the alt-right to grow, all the while cracking down on everything to his left, leaving Trump as the supposedly moderating force in a new fascist era.
I do not deny the possibility of something playing out along those lines. In some ways, in fact, it does not even seem like a stretch to imagine it happening. But there is another, more familiar form of repositioning that is already happening in the United States, and it threatens to turn the torch-bearing mobs of Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville into an absurdly easy litmus test.
The question could well become: Do you openly support white supremacists? No? Then you are a good and decent person, and everything that you say is above reproach.
The danger, in other words, is that people will now be able to advocate racist policies without being called out on their racism, so long as they say the right things about extremists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.
That would be a travesty, however, because there are all too many ways in which policies can harm vulnerable people, and we should not allow anyone to say: “Well, I don’t yell ‘Kill the Jews!’ or wear an armband with a swastika, so I’m not a problem, no matter what policies I support.”
Fascism Is More Than Fashion
Years ago, a left-leaning writer commented that Americans who worry about the return of fascism are strangely worried about fashion. Fashion? He explained that people were basically looking around to see whether anyone was wearing Nazi-era clothing.
“No jackboots? No brown shirts? OK, we’re good.”
The point, of course, was that fascist movements in the present need not look to the naked eye like fascist movements of the past. What makes Charlottesville interesting, however, was how much of the iconography was unmistakably fascist, even as it was mixed together with oddities such as white polo shirts and khaki pants. It was not difficult to look at the right-wing demonstrators and see with one’s own eyes that these people are fascists.
But that obviously cannot mean that there would be no problem if the new generation of fascists had chosen brand new symbols. Indeed, the new hate-mongers could claim to repudiate the specifics of historical fascist movements even while creating what would in substance be the same set of noxious ideas.
Because of the white supremacists’ lack of imagination, however, we now have a situation in which even extreme conservatives can distance themselves from the most shameless racists simply by making what amounts to little more than different fashion statements.
Republicans for the last few decades have stopped relying on explicitly racist appeals, turning instead to racist dog whistles—those ostensibly neutral messages with racial undertones audible to those listening for them.
But some policies are harmful to disadvantaged groups because of the content of the policies themselves, no matter the intent of the person who advocates the policies or whether the underlying racism is coded. What is interesting and important is how a person responds when he finds out that his preferred policies might harm people based on their race or other characteristics.
Imagine a person who genuinely and whole-heartedly denounces all forms of bigotry. He certainly has every reason to believe that doing so makes him one of the good people in society. By extension, he will be quite unhappy if he is lumped together with white supremacists.
“Look,” such a person might say, “I’m not just refusing to wear the fashions of the neo-Nazis. I truly believe that they are evil. I am not a racist. Why are you saying that my policy views make me a racist?”
The answer is that even people who claim to renounce racism can advocate policies that have the same effects that openly racist people would advocate. And although guilt by association is not always fair, we have ways of figuring out when it is.
What Is Racism, Anyway?
The day before Trump said that there were “fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville demonstrations, the Washington Post published a vivid example of this category of conservatives who are avowed non-racists and who are aggrieved by the politics of race. The author is a publisher/editor of a small-town paper in southern Ohio, and the Post has recently given him a platform to espouse a pro-Trump viewpoint while defending the purportedly good and decent non-racists who voted for him.
The column, under the title, “An Honest Conversation About Race Is Not Allowed,” was electric with the energy of grievance. He all but screams: How dare anyone call people like me racists? Racism, he insists, is “a word with a definition that has expanded to cover any expression that veers from left-wing dogma on the issue.”
He then impatiently explains that racism—which is definitely “abhorrent”—is “the belief that an entire race of people is inherently inferior, or superior, to another race of people.” If he rejects that, then how can he be a racist?
His complaint is thus that he simply wants to have a productive conversation about race, but intolerant lefties will not listen to him. But he tips his hand almost immediately by listing the topics of the honest conversation that he wants to have:
By contrast, simply disagreeing with affirmative action programs, or supporting a crackdown on crime, or wanting to rein in government spending on domestic programs, or opposing sanctuary cities, is not racism. You can argue that these positions are wrong, but they are not inherently racist.
Well, no, those policy positions are not inherently racist, but they are not inherently non-racist, either. “Simply disagreeing with affirmative action programs” certainly carries a whiff of racism, but it is not difficult to find non-racist attacks on affirmative action programs based on, for example, claims that affirmative action’s goals can be better met through other means. I tend to find those arguments unpersuasive in the sense that they seem not to solve the problem, but I do believe that a person could in good faith think otherwise.
And this is true of the other items on the list. Wanting a “crackdown” on crime, reining in government spending on domestic programs, and opposing so-called sanctuary cities can each be justified by claiming that there is a non-racist objective.
But there is also a very racist argument in favor of each of those policies, and the history of this country is replete with evidence that the actual carrying out of such policies has furthered the goals that any racist would celebrate. For example, tough-on-crime policies always seem—for some reason that remains mysterious to people who claim not to be racists—to result in surges of poor nonwhite people going to jail.
Cutting spending on domestic programs could mean reduced expenditures on roads and parks in rich suburbs, I suppose, but somehow that is never what the avowedly non-racist budget cutters have in mind. It is always about the undeserving minorities who are lazing away their days in the “hammock” of the welfare state.
The same logic applies to immigration crackdowns, with nominally non-bigoted excuses being used in ways that generate results that openly bigoted people would love.
Moreover, there is also a totality-of-the-circumstances aspect of these policies that tends to make the protestations of innocence even more difficult to take seriously. It just so happens that every policy you advocate can and does harm disadvantaged groups? And it never occurs to you to wonder whether there is a pattern here?
Avowedly Non-Racist People Can (and Do) Promote Racist Policies
In a recent column, I described a taxonomy that I developed long ago to explore the different ways in which people can reach faulty conclusions. A person can be naïve (or ignorant), not being aware of basic facts necessary to understand a problem. A person can be stupid (or illogical), incapable of putting two and two together. Or a person can be evil (or malevolent), deliberately reaching a bad outcome because he likes the bad outcome.
In this context, then, it is possible that a person could simply lack the facts available to know that the “non-racist” policies described above have racist effects in the real world. (Naïve.) It is also possible for a person to think that wanting policies to be non-racist is all that one needs to make them so. (Stupid.) Or a person could be happy with that list of policies because the policies harm people whom the person wants to target, or at least because he likes what he gets out of the policies (lower taxes for himself, for example) more than he worries about other people’s pain. (Evil.)
I certainly understand that plenty of people are uninformed, and that there is a deep pool of people who are not good at logic. But the more the errors of fact or logic all lead to the same place, over and over again, the more foolish it would be for the rest of us to insist on ignoring what the evidence is telling us about the motivations of the people who always find excuses to disparage the needs of the neediest.
The legal system, in fact, deals with these distinctions all the time. In the law of employment discrimination, for example, there are two basic categories: disparate treatment and disparate impact. Disparate treatment is the logical analogue to alt-right bigotry, where an employer refuses to hire or promote or give equal pay to people on the basis of race or other prohibited reasons.
Disparate treatment on the basis of race is the simplest expression of what everyone thinks of as racism: “I am not hiring you because you are Chinese.” But that is hardly the end of the story.
The doctrine of disparate impact says that policies that have been adopted with no evidence of animus on the part of the employer can still systematically harm disadvantaged groups. Those policies, in other words, are racist, even if the employer is a non-racist (or is good at hiding his racism).
Because the inference is indirect, of course, the law requires plaintiffs in disparate impact cases to overcome certain presumptions and provide sufficient evidence before a court will declare that a person is the victim of discrimination.
But people do win some of those cases while losing others, which is as it should be. The larger point is that we do not stop after a disparate treatment inquiry and say, “Well, nobody said anything out loud about all Mexicans being rapists, so I guess we’re done here.” People can be victimized by bigotry of both the overt and covert kind.
Donald Trump, of course, tends toward the overt. In the aftermath of his “I’ve got your backs” moment with the right-wing protesters in Charlottesville, a depressingly small number of Republicans have faulted him. While there is good reason to suspect that the real objection among these Republicans is that Trump is saying openly what many had hoped to keep hidden, one need not even assume that all of them are cynical in that way.
What we can say is that being against Nazis is not enough—a necessary condition to be considered a decent human being, to be sure, but definitely not enough. We cannot define down the word “racist” to mean only people who shout “Sieg heil!” and use terms like “mud people” to describe racial minorities.
It is obvious why people who like to think of themselves as good and decent human beings do not want to be called racists. That says very good things about social norms. But people who consistently choose policies that, again and again, harm disadvantaged people are having a bigoted impact on society, and we should not pretend otherwise.
I understand why a person would want to say, “I don’t want to think of myself as a racist, so don’t judge me just because of my policy preferences.” But there is a simple answer to that: Choose policy preferences that do not have bigoted impacts.
Or you can follow the example of that conservative newspaperman in Ohio, simply insisting that other people are unfairly failing to see past your bad ideas to your good heart. Your choice.