President Donald Trump’s description of Africa and Haiti as shitholes preoccupied commentators with the question, “Is the president ‘a racist’?”
A New York Times headline for a David Leonhardt column implored, “Just Say It: Trump Is a Racist.” Over at CNN,Jim Acosta wasn’t quite prepared to answer Leonhardt’s plea, carefully telling Anderson Cooper, “It’s a disturbing pattern, because it seems to come back to one truth here, and that is that this president deep down may just be a racist.” Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy would have none of this hedging, proclaiming, “The obvious truth can no longer be avoided or sugar-coated: We have a racist in the Oval Office.”
Trump’s long record of racist speech and behavior and inclination toward racist policies restricting immigration from poor parts of the world evidently hadn’t been as conclusive as this vulgar episode.
The expletive, like its predecessor in the Access Hollywood tape, heightened the statement’s outrageousness: Presidents are supposed to be dignified, not crass; eloquent, not vulgar; decent, not filthy. But Trump’s racist remark violated an even more fundamental norm. “The main lesson most whites absorbed from the Civil Rights Movement,” tweeted sociologist Crystal Fleming, “wasn’t that they have a personal responsibility to fight systemic racism but rather, that they have a responsibility to maintain a public appearance of being ‘non-racist’ even as racism pervades their lives.”
Politicians may engineer coups d’état, brutal austerity, or covert wars in Africa and Haiti; they may enact policies that intensify poverty, incarceration, and pollution that disproportionately hurt black and brown people in the United States, but these are not sufficient to irrefutably verify that they are “a racist.” Only public speech acts can do that, since, as Fleming continued in her Twitter thread, “the problem, for many whites, isn’t white racism or dominance —the problem is a failed public performance of being ‘non-racist.’”
In this formulation, racism is not a system but an inherent quality within an individual, proof of which comes when they publicly espouse racist views or use racist language. By formally classifying Trump “a racist” (“calling him out”), well-to-do liberals are able to implicitly deem themselves “non-racists” while keeping the pervasiveness of the attitude that Africa and Haiti are shitholes where it belongs: swept well under the rug.