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Where Have All The Racists Gone?

Trump inciting the crowd at his rally in Cincy.

When people in his base hear Donald Trump say that he is “a very stable genius” or that he is not a racist do they believe a word of it? Or do they simply not care that he lies and spews nonsense?

I am not thinking about the Trump supporters at the very bottom of “the basket of deplorables”; they are of more clinical than political interest. I mean the ones whose heads are screwed on right — more or less.

I would truly like to believe that they don’t believe any of Trump’s jibber-jabber.

I would not like it to be the case that some forty percent of the American electorate is, as they say, non compos mentis, of unsound mind.

After all, it is (slightly) more comforting to think that most Trump supporters have, or think they have, compelling reasons for supporting someone whom they know to be a vile ignoramus.

Some two and a half years into the Trump era, those would have to be powerful reasons indeed. Needless to say, they are not.

The least implausible of them have to do, one way or another, with the economy or with a desire for an even more troglodyte judiciary.

Benighted evangelicals and, for very different reasons, befuddled libertarians are especially interested in that. They want judges who “look (white) like them,” of course; but, more important, they want judges who share their beliefs and befuddlements, judges who think like them.

That Trump supporters would advance such reasons is understandable, though hardly defensible.

It was arguably different in 2016, when Trump was still a largely unknown figure, and when a vote for him could still seem, to the willfully blind, like a plausible way to vote against Hillary Clinton. Two and a half years later, no reason for supporting Trump stands up under even the most casual scrutiny.

Be that as it may, it is possible, in principle, that at least some of the reasons Trump supporters might advance do not require them to believe what he says about himself or to take any of his blabber seriously.

Those of us who feel obliged to take Trumpism seriously enough to confute it are grateful for that. It is one thing to argue against, for example, claims that Trump’s policies are good for the economy, and something else to have to point out that he really isn’t a stable genius or the least racist person on the face of the earth. Rebutting false beliefs and bad economics is less demeaning than demolishing ludicrous delusions.

There is, however, some point in heeding Trump’s claim that he is not a racist, even if it makes no more sense than the idea that, like Richard Nixon before him, he is not a crook. This is not because there is any merit to his claim, but because it reflects changes in the way the word “racism” has come to be used.

Rare are the Trump supporters who consider themselves geniuses, stable or otherwise. But almost all of them would, like the Donald, deny that they are “racists.” Even unabashed white supremacists shy away from that label.

How strange this is! White supremacists and others whose views are close to theirs don’t mind claiming, for example, that the right to bear arms good only for committing mass murder is constitutionally protected, but they don’t take at all kindly to being called “racists.”

This is by no means all Trump’s doing; the vilification of the word has been in the works for a long time.

However, his crude way of bullying people who get under his skin, which often amounts to nothing more than applying to them what they — correctly – say about him, has helped make “racist” even more of a term of opprobrium than it used to be.

Does the nearly universal reluctance of racists to own the word signify positive movement along what Martin Luther King called “the long arc of the moral universe”? Or are Trump and his supporters simply blowing air? As race relations in Trumpland deteriorate, these are questions worth pondering.

***

Ever since the rise of the first civilizations, more than three thousand years ago, the fact that human populations differ significantly in skin color and other readily observable respects has been widely known.

For the most part, these differences did not much matter socially, politically or culturally. Why would they when contacts between disparate populations were exceedingly rare?

At the same time, contacts with populations closer by became increasingly frequent. This sometimes led to the domination of some groups by others.

Because we “rational animals” seek justifications for what we think and do, notions of group superiority and inferiority have been politically consequential for as long as some populations have dominated others.

Superficially similar notions have existed at many times and in many places over the past three thousand or more years, but the modern concept of “race” is of quite recent vintage. It is essentially a concoction of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century (pseudo-) science, based upon the reification of salient, but biologically meaningless, differences among human populations.

“Institutional racism” involves the systematic exploitation of some peoples by others. Thus something very like it preceded the emergence of the concept of race and therefore the development of racist ideologies; that something has existed wherever distinct peoples have lived together as dominators and subordinates.

But this is not quite what is at issue when Trump and his supporters deny that they are racists. Their understanding of the term depends crucially on the concept of race –that is, on the historically particular purchase on domination and subordination that became a structuring element in the lives of the peoples of Europe, Africa, and the Americas after the European discovery of the New World and the rise of the African slave trade.

The development of modern imperialism, with its global reach, has increased its importance in these continents. It has also added to or, in some cases, superseded local institutional racism-like phenomena in Asia, Australasia, and the Pacific Islands.

“Attitudinal racism,” ideological justifications for institutional racism that appeal to the purported inferiority of exploited races, emerged in response to a situation in which longstanding but nevertheless heterogeneous series of local phenomena, bearing only family resemblances to one another, coalesced into global social divisions.

As racist ideologies developed to justify institutional racism, a racial hierarchy came to register in the consciousness of both the exploited and their exploiters. It is based largely (but not entirely) on the amount of melanin in peoples’ skin – whites on top, followed by yellows, reds and browns, and then by blacks.

Within these groupings too, there were sub-hierarchies typically also based on lightness and darkness of skin color. This phenomenon is largely an effect of the racist ideology of the dominant imperial culture. But there are parts of the world – for example, on the Indian sub-continent and in other parts of Asia – where it draws on indigenous beliefs as well.

What appeared to be biological and anthropological evidence for racial divisions was bolstered by research in comparative linguistics. Degrees of relatedness between languages were taken as evidence for relatedness between peoples. However, the linguistic evidence did not always mesh well with racist justifying theories.

It became clear, for example, that most European languages are descended from languages spoken in India, thereby linking dark Indians with white Europeans. It also became clear that many “Caucasians” spoke non-Indo-European languages – not just in the Middle East, where most languages were “Semitic,” but also in Western, Eastern and Northern Europe.

Nevertheless, to this day, racial and linguistic categories are typically confounded. “Semitic,” for example, designates a linguistic grouping (that includes Hebrew and Arabic), not a race in the modern sense. But because millennia ago some of the ancestors of modern Jews spoke Semitic languages, “anti-Semite” has come to mean “anti-Jewish.”

Social Darwinism, the idea that those on the top of social hierarchies must somehow be the “fittest,” was also enlisted in efforts to provide scientific support for racist ideologies. But Social Darwinism was a hodge-podge of misunderstandings. Among other things, its conception of “fitness” was neither Darwinian nor sustainable.

For Darwin, the “fittest” organisms are those that are best able to reproduce in the environmental niche in which they find themselves; they are not, as Social Darwinists claimed, “the best” in any more general sense of the term.

Therefore, to infer from the fact that, in recent centuries, “the white race” and especially its “Nordic” components, has achieved political and economic dominance over other “races” does not entail that it is, in any biologically relevant sense, superior to the others.

For an extended tract of recent human history, whites dominated blacks – and browns and reds and yellows – for historically grounded, socio-political and economic reasons, not “racial” ones. To suggest otherwise is, at best, to cast a self-serving and deeply tendentious post hoc, ergo propter hoc explanation in Darwinian guise.

It should also be noted that racial categories have always been fluid – over time and between racially divided societies.

Two of the four Congresswomen “of color” that Trump wants to send back to “where they came from,” Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might well have counted as white as recently as the sixties or seventies, when “browns” were inconsequential in most parts of the country, and the black-white division seemed all-consuming.

Meanwhile, the racial categories in use in Apartheid South Africa counted many individuals as white that would have been black in the Jim Crow South. The South Africans also distinguished blacks not just from Asians (Indians) but also from “coloreds” (persons of both white and black ancestry).

In any case, it is now beyond dispute that the science that racists invoke to justify white dominance is bogus. We now know, for example, that there is more genetic variation within races than between them.

The fact is that, beyond differences in complexion and facial features, there are very few biological characteristics that correlate with today’s racial designations. In a rational world, none of them would be of any social or political significance whatsoever.

This is not to say that all human populations are the same. Geneticists are able to establish lines of descent by focusing on the Y chromosome and the mitochondria of living persons. These comparatively small parts of the human genome do not divide in each generation and therefore do not change quickly. They therefore provide evidence of degrees of relatedness across human populations.

By this means, we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that all human beings are, so to speak, cousins, though some are only very distantly related. It is now also generally accepted that human beings first appeared in southern Africa about 100,000 years ago.

Thanks to migration, some human populations have been separated from others for millennia. But this has not been nearly enough time for these scattered groupings to differentiate biologically, except with respect to superficial features. The only exceptions are a handful of comparatively minor characteristics of mainly medical interest.

Medical differences are hardly surprising inasmuch as so-called racial (and sub-racial) groupings have, for a very long time, constituted distinct “breeding populations.” Just as even recently established breeds of dogs or horses are more or less susceptible than others to certain illnesses thanks to genetic traits that become lodged in their breeding stock, reproductively segregated human populations too can become unusually prone to particular ailments.

The idea that there are differential levels of intelligence across racial groupings has been a longstanding claim of racist ideologues. Were this the case, it is far from clear what, if any, policy implications would follow. However, it is not the case.

A vast literature has grown up in support of the claim that the ostensibly empirical findings racist ideologues produce are, at best, muddled. More damaging still, the concept of “intelligence” they invoke fails to pass muster. And yet, in some circles, the belief persists, proving only, yet again, that people believe what they want to believe.

For as long as distinct peoples have intermingled, there has been “interbreeding.” In what is now the United States, where African Americans are descended from slaves, and where slave-masters sexually exploited their human chattel, most African-Americans have some European ancestry. But in the racial map of the American political culture as it has existed for more than a century after the fall of the ante-bellum South, anyone with even one African great grandfather was deemed “black.”

The obsession with “white” racial purity helped to insure that the majority population would maintain its dominant position in the institutionally racist system. This was bad for white workers too; it facilitated their economic exploitation because they could always be told, correctly, that no matter how poorly off they were, blacks were worse off still. It is no wonder, therefore, that white racist attitudes are so difficult to overcome.

And it is no wonder too that when partially overcome or widely suppressed by what John Stuart Mill called “the moral coercion of public opinion,” racist attitudes have turned out to be eminently revivable, especially in economically dislocated circles in which desperate people, susceptible to being egged on by demagogues like Donald Trump, abound.

***

Polite, ruling-class racism of is more noxious by far than the sometimes nasty racism that Trump has done so much to revive.

Ruling classes rule by divide and conquer. It is well to keep this historical truism in mind, along with its corollary — that not all attitudinal racisms are created equal and therefore that not all racists are equally culpable.

Even so, nowadays, at least in the United States, they are all of one mind in not wanting to be called “racist.”

It makes them mad. The more racist they are, the madder it makes them.

Does this mean that American racists, like women in the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercials, have come “come a long way, baby? Or have they not come any way at all?

The easy and obvious answer is that nothing has changed except the ways some people talk.

After all, rebranding racist attitudes to make them seem less noxious isn’t progress; not much progress anyway. But the situation is a little more complicated than that – because what matters, in this case, is not so much the rebranding itself, but the fact that practically everybody, including the president, feels the need to do it.

This would probably not have come to pass were credible scientists still promoting untenable theories of racial superiority and inferiority, but credit is mainly due the civil rights movement and the decades of struggle that preceded and followed it.

A country that has made a saint of Martin Luther King and turned his birthday into a national holiday cannot embarrass itself too blatantly on the race question without unnerving even ardent Trump supporters. Not yet, anyway; not after just two and a half years of Trumpian misrule.

And so, outright racist ideology – the theory, if not the practice – now everywhere gets a bad press. Backtracking is possible, even on this, however; with Trump anything vile is possible.

Fortunately, though, most Americans, including many who do not live in the right places for garnering Electoral College votes sufficient for ridding the body politic of the Trumpian menace, would adamantly oppose such backtracking. Even those who would like the wickedness Trump inspires to deepen and expand are, for the most part, of that mind.

There is reason to expect this not to change, even if, under Trump’s aegis, the situation continues to worsen. With Nancy Pelosi and other corporate Democrats keeping impeachment hearings at bay, things could well get worse before they get better. But as long as there are militants fighting on the other side, it is unlikely that all the gains, even the comparatively trivial ones, achieved over the past century will be wiped out. This is progress of a sort.

Over the years, many of the old civil rights fighters have turned almost anodyne. Not all of the ones who are still politically active have been coopted into the Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) fold, but many have. Even some celebrated “icons” have lost their edge.

Not to fear, however; there is a new generation rising to fill the void — spurred on, in large part, as in the past, by inequality and police violence. They must take over the leadership.

In the meanwhile, though, it behooves us to ask: where have all the racists gone?

The answer, of course, is: nowhere at all. Whatever doubt there had been about that in the Obama era has been swept aside over the past two and a half years.

But the fact that even the most egregious racists try to hide this plain fact, that their disingenuousness triumphs over their shamelessness, shows that, however bleak the situation may now be, the arc of the moral universe has not entirely stalled.

“Hypocrisy,” François de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) famously quipped, “is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” There was a time, still within living memory, when the most hardcore racists in the Land of the Free saw no need even to bother concealing their bigotry. Nowadays, finally, even they have come around: tribute is being paid.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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