|Neither perfect nor deplorable|
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Not every racist is deplorable, though racism always is. That’s what Hillary overlooked when she dismissed so many Americans as “deplorables” at a recent fund-raiser (italics added):
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
To be fair, she did label only some of them as “irredeemable”, and she did immediately follow up with expressions of empathy for those driven into Trump’s arms by economic and cultural malaise, rather than by bigotry. And she later apologized for characterizing so many of his supporters as deplorable. Undeniably, Trump has come as far as he’s come partly by appealing to white racial, religious and sexual animus, and a significant part of his support comes from those motivated by varying degrees of that animus. But that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. It doesn’t even necessarily make them bigots. Seriously.
Let’s consider the categories of white racial hostility, particularly. But before we do, let’s resist the overwhelming contemporary practice of misusing political language; let’s clarify our terms. The word “racism” means the belief that people of other races are inherently and irredeemably inferior, morally or intellectually. And, clearly, a “racist” is someone who holds such beliefs. Obviously, many white Americans are racist; anecdote, empirical study, and everyday observation all bear that out (though how many is in hot dispute). And given the monumental horror that racism has visited upon our nation, we’re all obligated to aggressively and zealously fight against it. But there are subtleties lurking here as well.
But let’s start with the unambiguous category, the organized racists, those whose social and political lives center on their conviction that non-whites are indeed inferior, and who actively work to implement policies predicated upon that perception. This category obviously includes those members of explicitly racist organizations, like Stormfront, or the Klan, or the alt-right. These people are indeed deplorable and contemptible. It doesn’t matter whether they’re otherwise hard workers or good parents or responsible citizens; if they’ve dedicated their political lives to subjugating millions of their fellow human beings, if they explicitly and consistently act on their unjustifiable hatreds, then they’ve consigned themselves to moral illegitimacy.
Next are the decided racists, those who are convinced that whites are superior and that the races should be kept separate, but who don’t make those beliefs central to their personality or their politics. These are people who prefer to live and associate only with other whites. They think American culture is superior because whites and Christianity are superior, and they think only white Christians (and possibly Jews) can be real Americans. They generally vote for conservative politicians out of vague fear and hostility toward the Other, but they agree that organizations like the Klan are beneath contempt. We all know someone who fits in this category, and we all know that their racism doesn’t define them or completely negate whatever good qualities they otherwise have. Until just a couple of generations ago, almost every white American was squarely in this category. Of course, by now everyone should know better, and willful ignorance is deplorable, but in and of itself it doesn’t make one a deplorable person.
That’s because every person is a moral mixed bag; none of us is pure. Racism is an irredeemable evil, but so is greed, or selfishness, or callousness in the face of suffering, etc., and we are all guilty of all of them. It’s the degree to which we are racist or selfish or greedy or callous that makes it fair to characterize us as good or bad people, as admirable or deplorable. Racism is different from those more pedestrian evils in that it’s a social artifact (like race itself), not a natural part of human life, and therefore could conceivably be eradicated. But when assessing a given individual’s moral worth there’s no real reason to treat it so different from other, more universal evils. And let’s be clear, that’s how Hillary meant to assess those people: as individuals, not merely as political actors. Regardless of how many people she was referring to, to her they’re “deplorables”, individuals to be discounted. But is it fair to morally dismiss all the decided racists as casually as the organized ones?
But it’s in the last and most numerous category of white American racial hostility that the most subtleties and confusions lie. These are the racially resentful, those who feel as if society – the government, the media, the academy, elite opinion – favors non-whites over whites, that it condemns white failings but condones black ones, that it celebrates blackness but disdains whiteness. Note that this is actually not racism per se. It’s entirely possible to feel your own race is being treated unfairly without thinking another race is inferior. In practice, however, many in this category suspect that blacks are more prone to irresponsibility and immorality and violence. But even this is not necessarily racism. Since there’s nothing racist in perceiving a culture as dysfunctional, it’s possible to believe African-American culture simply fails to sufficiently inculcate responsibility and self-control, and that if blacks could be raised in the supposedly superior white culture they would be just as virtuous as whites.
It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen very often. That is, most people in the resentful category are deep down quite suspicious about the inherent shortcomings of black folks. But typically those suspicions are unconscious. The resentful don’t consider themselves racist at all, and they don’t intend harm on any race. Most of them are good people, as good as people anywhere. Their views on race are foolish and wildly wrong-headed – the notion that blacks have it easier than whites is just laughable, for instance. But believing such absurdities makes them neither deplorable nor irredeemable.
What it makes them is American. That is, when it comes to race the vast majority of white Americans are a little bit racist. None of us is without racial sin. But it’s only fair to say that if we stipulate that it’s almost entirely unconscious, and it’s only true in the technical sense. We defined a racist as someone who believes in racism, but maybe that wasn’t such a clear definition after all. It just doesn’t seem fair to call someone racist for having vague, fleeting, unconscious negative reactions to people of color, especially if he or she on a conscious level concedes that racism is intellectually and morally bankrupt. The stupid and destructive racial fears imparted by the overwhelming weight of 400 years of racial horror do not negate whatever other admirable qualities those people possess. What seems to separate conservative whites from their liberal counterparts is the degree of their unconscious racial fear, plus the unwillingness to honestly face that history, and its ongoing effects.
But that doesn’t mean all their resentment is unfounded. Elite society actually does generally disdain less-than-affluent whites, treating them as rednecks, rubes, white trash, etc. And it’s true that liberals do tend to excuse any bad behavior by African-Americans – even violence and looting. And programs like affirmative action do advantage blacks at the expense of whites, within limited contexts. On the whole, being white in America still brings with it enormous advantages, but working-class whites can’t be blamed for resenting these other things. Neither can they be criticized for resenting the way globalization, de-industrialization, off-shoring, and loose immigration policies have decimated their wages and economic conditions. They understand – viscerally and accurately – that the people running the country not only don’t care about their values and interests, but positively consider them illegitimate. They have become starkly alienated, they feel themselves a “forgotten tribe . . . strangers in their own land.” They know they’re rejected, discounted, deplored.
Conservative ideologues dismiss their economic concerns while liberal ones dismiss them. And now they’ve found a champion in Donald Trump, who speaks directly to their fears and their alienation, who tells them they are the backbone of the country, and that they can be made great again. He tells them that they and their concerns are paramount. But he also incites their anger, and inflames their worst fears regarding suspect groups: African-Americans, Mexicans, Muslims. This is the true deplorable: the politician who exploits racial fear and anger for his own gain, who gives license to our worst instincts, who would destroy America in order to save it. His followers are so much better than he is.
But they have some responsibility here too. They need not let their irrationalities rule them. Trump may be the only national figure who directly speaks to their pressing concerns, who has made a real pitch to be their leader. But they didn’t have to follow. By choosing to support a race-baiter, they’ve made themselves more complicit in our national sin. Embracing a candidate because of his racial animus (or failing to reject him for it) is a definite moral failure, one much worse than merely consciously or unconsciously harboring racial animus oneself. But these are the fruits of denial. Most of his supporters are in the resentful category; they’re not real racists like the decideds or the organized. But their stubborn refusal to confront both our sordid racial history and their own subtle biases has left them vulnerable to exploitation by a slimy demagogue like Trump. He pushes buttons they’re convinced they don’t even have! They may not be real racists, but by attaching themselves to a man who so inflames racial hostility they’re starting to act like ones.
But liberals like Hillary aren’t giving them any real alternative – almost deliberately! Liberal sanctimony and condescension – epitomized by Hillary’s “deplorable” comments themselves – only drive resentful whites further away. They resent being called racist when they’re really not, at least not in the virulent way the decideds or the organized are. They correctly understand that most liberals consider them irredeemable, enemies to be crushed, not constituents to be induced. Liberals and white populists seem to be coming to an agreement that the essence of liberalism is contempt for the white working class.
And contempt for any dissent regarding race. There’s nothing at all racist in opposing multiculturalism or affirmative action or identity politics or immigration or Black Lives Matter, and there are plenty of honest (and compelling) arguments to be made against them and plenty of honest people making them. That some people make bad faith arguments doesn’t change that. There’s a whole lot of space between David Duke and campus leftists. But liberals have indulged in deploration-creep, labeling as racist and bigoted even the smallest criticism of their officially sanctioned racial views. This is liberals’ worst instinct: perceiving themselves as saints ridding the world of sinners. It’s simple Puritan witch-hunting, but sporting radical chic and spouting post-modern alibis. And it doesn’t really do anyone much good, this Politics of Shaming, but it’s so much more self-satisfying than the thankless drudgery of building coalitions and making good-faith arguments. Crusading is so much more fun than persuading! Conservatives may be in denial about our racial problems, but liberals seem to have given up on any idea of actually solving them!
And that’s a disaster of the first order, because a more constructive and less self-righteous liberalism is the only thing that can possibly save us. American racism unfortunately has both a long history and a promising future, and only liberals fully appreciate the enormity of the challenge it represents. But the fact that we’ve come in just a few decades from a nation of mostly organized and decided racists to one that is mostly racially resentful should be seen as tremendous progress! Explicit and conscious racism has been almost wiped out. It’s time for the witch-hunt to stop. That’s not to say that the foolish and horribly destructive racial attitudes remaining should not be called out and condemned – we are all obligated to do just that. It’s to say that those harboring and expressing those attitudes should still be respected as individuals and as citizens. We cannot indulge the racial sin, but we must love the sinner. We really have no choice. We’re all Americans, the Black Lives Matter activist and the Trump supporter alike. We work hard and hope for the future and try to do well by ourselves and our children and our fellow countrymen. None of us is going anywhere, and no real solutions will exclude any of us.