Erika D. Smith

First, we came for sexists. Now, we come for racists

It has been entire year since President Donald Trump took the oath of office, but from where I’m sitting, not much has changed since the day he descended that escalator in Trump Tower and called Mexican immigrants criminals.

 
Opinion

Then as now, Americans are locked in a contentious debate over race – one that is only getting worse, if a recent YouGov poll is to be believed. And then as now, Americans are trying to decide whether Trump is actually a racist, or whether he merely says and does racist things.

What’s interesting is that we finally seem to be coming up with some answers.

A survey from Quinnipiac University found that almost six in 10 voters believe the president was being racist when he derided immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and apparently all of Africa as being less worthy than immigrants from almost all white Norway. What’s more, 59 percent of voters said Trump respects white people more than people of color.

Trump, of course, insists otherwise. “No, no, I’m not a racist,” Trump told reporters, as he has many times before. “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

This kind of gaslighting has been going on for decades.

But to my surprise, many Americans aren’t falling for it the way they once did. Much like the powerful men of Hollywood who, for so long, got away with saying and doing horrible things to women, the days of letting derogatory race-based remarks slide in silence may be slowly but surely coming to an end.

Think of it as the Trump trickle-down effect.

Despite the legion of Trump apologists, it’s definitely happening in Washington. On Thursday, the Congressional Black Caucus introduced a bill to formerly censure Trump for his racist remarks. The bill has the backing of about 130 House Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi.

Even though the legislation is unlikely to get taken up by House Speaker Paul Ryan, much less passed by the Republican-controlled House, caucus leader Rep. Cedric Richmond explained that remaining silent in the face of such racism would be “betrayal.”

“It’s important for the world to know that’s not how we think, that’s not how we feel,” the Louisiana Democrat said at a news conference. “The people from these countries, the leadership of these countries, were hurt.”

Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had the similar thoughts when they tore into Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday for denying she heard Trump say the word “shithole.”

“The commander in chief in an Oval Office meeting referring to people from African countries and Haitians with the most vile and vulgar language, that language festers. When ignorance and bigotry is allied with power it is a dangerous force in our country. Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” Booker said.

Silence also wasn’t an option for hundreds of parents, students, teachers and community activists who came out to an Elk Grove Unified School District meeting to defend a student who says she’s been harassed and called the N-word, and unable to get help from school officials.

Rachael Francois, a senior at Pleasant Grove High School, told The Sacramento Bee that she had tried to get help from the district, but her pleas had been largely ignored until a video of a student making racist remarks went viral.

“I stand with Rachael” was the common refrain in hours of emotional testimony about experiences many people had with racial discrimination at the school.

Recognizing racism in this country means more than just ostracizing white men chanting “blood and soil” and marching with tiki torches in the dark of night. It also means more than confronting a president who doesn’t want to admit he’s wrong.

Racism endures because people rationalize their beliefs, rather than ponder their ignorance. They think that if someone occasionally says something racist, but wouldn’t, say, burn a cross on a black family’s lawn, then he or she is still a good, moral person. Rude and crude maybe, but hardly worthy of criticism and certainly not on par with the deeds of an evil white supremacist.

This is important to the way racism works in this country – for the president, who is still trying to weasel his way out of calling two countries and a whole continent “shithole,” and to the fragile psyche of the millions of mostly white, rural folk who continue to support him.

To truly root out racism, Americans must call it out in all of its forms. No longer can we allow willfully ignorant people to say or do racist things and expect not to be treated like a racist. Period. No excuses.

This isn’t political grandstanding. It’s moral indignation.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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