White People Have Denied That They Are Racist For a Long Time

Jim Crow

After Donald Trump told U.S Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib, and Omar to “go back” to their own countries, I heard and read a lot of conservatives say something similar to Fox News commentator Brit Hume:

Hume’s tweet shows his ignorance.  For more than half a century, historians have made a a strong case that nativism/xenophobia is rooted in racism. But I would imagine Hume, if confronted with such scholarship, would simply say that it was produced by a bunch of liberal professors and it thus has no merit.

Other conservatives have said that using the term “racist” to describe Trump’s tweets will somehow water-down the true meaning of the term.  Racism is bad–really bad–so let’s use the term carefully.  These statements are usually followed a reference to Miriam-Webster.

Now many of these same conservatives are saying that Trump’s recent tweets about Elijah Cummings and Baltimore are not racist.

I would suggest that instead of thinking about racism by trying to apply a dictionary definition to our current moment, we should think historically about white people’s understanding of racism.  If we did this, we would learn that there is a long history of white people denying their racism. In fact, most white people in America during the so-called Jim Crow-era thought that they were treating blacks fairly. (The same, I might add, could be said for slavery).

Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, makes this case in a recent piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste of his op-ed, “Republicans don’t think Trump’s tweets are racist.  That fits a long American history of denying racism“:

Although many politicianspolitical commentatorsnews outlets and even a few longtime defenders of the president have called Trump’s words “racist,” Republican leaders have generally closed ranks and rejected this characterization.

To understand this debate about Trump and racism, it’s important to put it in historical perspective. First, it is but one episode in a long history of American denials of the extent and consequences of prejudice, racial discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement and persecution. Whites have done so even when the racism was virtually undeniable.

Second, this debate illustrates the more recent and growing partisan polarization on the question of what constitutes racism. That polarization makes it unsurprising that so many Republican leaders would not condemn Trump in these terms.

The Jim Crow era, from the 1870s through the 1950s, was a period of explicit, legally sanctioned racism. Racial segregation was enforced by law for decades. Black people were subjected to systematic discrimination, property deprivation, disenfranchisement and even violent death at the hands of Southern racists.

But remarkably, when pollsters asked white Americans about the situation of blacks, most still thought that African Americans were being treated fairly. In 1944, 1946 and 1956, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asked Americans, “Do you think most [N]egroes in the United States are being treated fairly or unfairly?” The graph below shows that at least 60 percent of whites said that most blacks were treated fairly.

Read the entire piece here.

4 thoughts on “White People Have Denied That They Are Racist For a Long Time

  1. I no longer understand what constitutes “racism.” Is it what you say or why you say it? If it’s the former does that mean whenever I criticize a black person or black culture I’m being racist? That’s ridiculous.

    It makes much more sense to me to say that “racism” is determined by WHY you say things. If I criticize someone BECAUSE they’re black then that’s racism.

    I suppose that if I apply the negative behavior or stereotypes of individuals or small groups to everyone of a given race, that’s racism as well. You know, like black people say all whites are racist.

    I don’t give a crap what color you are or where you come from but I reserve the right to criticize things I don’t like regardless of what color you are or where you come from.

    Let’s talk about Baltimore for a second. Like many large urban areas it’s a tale of two cities. When I take the train from Newark down to Fort Meade or Washington it passes through areas of Baltimore that are seriously in need of work, The buildings look like they’re falling apart and there is trash all over the streets. This needs to be addressed. People should not have to live in such conditions.

    Then you go to the Inner Harbor and the area is gorgeous. Everything looks clean and new. It’s difficult to believe that the two areas are part of the same town. Yet such contrasts are not that unusual in American cities.

    So am I a racist because I think some areas of Baltimore look run down?


  2. My own sense and understanding of racism is that a proper definition would need to include some acknowledgement that it is a continuum. In other words, it is not a “yes” or “no” demarcated line, it is an issue of degree. Some degree of it is unavoidable, simply because my inability to completely place myself in another’s shoes, so to speak, means that I am inevitably going to view another and their experience through the prism of my own. I can take actions to try to better understand others and relate to them and to acknowledge their situations and experiences, and that can move me “down” on the continuum, but we are *all* somewhere on that continuum nevertheless.

    A lot of the argument today, even amongst those who acknowledge the existence of that continuum, is identifying the specific point on that continuum where one’s views and attitudes and actions qualify one as “racist.” Everyone has a different definition of that, and most people strongly object to anyone who identifies that point in such a way as to put *me* on the wrong side of that point. Many/most people define it in such a way as to make it virtually impossible for them to be on the wrong side themselves. But from my perspective, identifying a particular specific level isn’t necessarily helpful, because those judged as falling beneath that level, inevitably, do still at times and to some degree engage in words or actions that exhibit racism.

    In my own life, I try to do what I can in order to move myself, and my attitudes and words and actions, down the continuum. But the thing is, I don’t reside at one static point, none of us do. It is a dynamic/kinetic situation. At various times I am perfectly capable of thoughts or speech or actions that would be more representative of someone residing on a different point on the continuum. Hopefully when that happens, I recognize it in myself and/or someone else points this out to me in an instructional way, and I can address it within myself.

    That’s just my own way of looking at the subject.

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  3. I kinda realized I don’t know how dictionaries work. Because Merriam-Webster has has three totally different definitions of “racism”. The first one is so narrow it could be argued that nobody has ever been racist.

    “1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”

    I have doubts anyone ever believed race was the PRIMARY determinant of human traits. The second uses “racism” in the definition, which I thought dictionaries weren’t supposed to do. Then the third definition is so broad that makeup and band-aids made to match skin tones are racist.

    “3: racial prejudice or discrimination”

    So that made things clear as mud. Which is kinda why I was hoping you would share what your working definition is. Because it seems like it’s closer to definition 3, whereas some seem to want to limit the definition to something closer to definition 1.


  4. Hume’s tweet shows his ignorance. For more than half a century, historians have made a a strong case that nativism/xenophobia is rooted in racism.

    To me, it’s the other way around:
    Racism is a specific sub-type of Xenophobia, where The Other is expressed in ethnic difference.

    As (black) SF writer Steven Barnes once put it on a LosCon panel, “Racism I can understand — it’s one tribe shaking its spears at another.”


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