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Hillary Clinton made an attempt to do some armchair sociology during a fundraiser last weekend, saying that half of Donald Trump's supporters could be "put in the basket of deplorables." The crowd laughed and cheered, apparently figuring out the meaning of this stilted phrase on their own. Clinton clarified it anyway, describing the deplorables as "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic." These people, according to Clinton, "are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America."
The other half of Trump's supporters were desperate and disillusioned, worried that they might one day "wake up and see their jobs disappear" or "lose a child to heroin." This half of Trump's supporters, according to Clinton, are worthy of empathizing with and understanding. Clinton clarified the next day, apologizing for saying "half," while also defending her accusations of racism and Islamophobia.
The subsequent conversation about Clinton's remarks has operated on two levels. One is concerned with the accuracy of her words — which political stances qualify as racist, what proportion of Trump's supporters hold racist views, whether it's fair to say that racism is motivating Trump supporters, and so forth. The other is whether, accuracy aside, it was good political strategy for Clinton to make this kind of statement — whether such a claim insults voters she's trying to win, the degree to which her statement resembles Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" remarks, and whether it was "politically correct" to make such a statement.
In my view, the entire exercise of binning people into the categories of "racist" and "not racist" is not useful, and is a basic and pervasive misunderstanding of what racism is and how it operates. It is a simple task to produce surveys and polls illustrating racism among Trump supporters. For example, 40 percent of Trump supporters believe that black people are lazier than white people. Half believe that black people are more criminal and more violent than white people. If this is the standard for one to be placed in the basket of deplorables, then Clinton's estimate was correct.
However, the same poll shows that about a quarter of Clinton supporters also believe that blacks are lazier than whites, and a third believe that blacks are more criminal and more violent than whites. One could come up with a variety of ways of explaining these polling numbers, but I think the simplest and most direct explanation is that anti-black views are largely held by white people, and there are more white people in the Republican party than there are in the Democratic party. That is, white Democrats are just as likely to hold anti-black views as white Republicans, there are just fewer of them.
Some back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that this is plausible (if you want the nitty-gritty, you can read an explanation at the bottom). This is not proof, but it certainly should give Democrats pause when they piously condemn the Republican party's anti-blackness as "not America" or "out of the mainstream." It is also illustrative of how racism functions in the political sphere.
In choosing a political candidate to support, voters have to decide which things are important to them, then evaluate the way the candidates fulfill those interests. For instance, a person may want conservative Supreme Court justices, and also a more progressive tax system. What is important to a voter isn't necessarily material, or even rational; someone could want criminal justice reform but also be a misogynist.
Trump supporters are no different. They have heard Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and deemed it acceptable for an American president. They have weighed the damage that Trump could do to black and brown lives and found it too light to tip the scales. Whether they have done so out of animus or indifference is a useful question if you are dealing with them on a personal level, but as a political matter, it is irrelevant. Whether they are supporting Trump because of his racist, nativist appeal or in spite of it, whether his xenophobia enters the ledger as a debit or a credit — what does this matter if they vote him into power?
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The fixation on creating a distinction between people who "do racist things" and people who "are racists" is probably the result of seeing racism as a matter of identity, almost as if it is tantamount to a religion. People accused of doing racist things declare that they do not have racism in their heart, or claim that while their actions were racist, their inner motives were pure. How so many people have come to see racism this way is a complicated matter, but what's clear is that it is both wrong and counterproductive. Racism is a material concern, not a spiritual one — it is about works, not faith.
There are lots of people who will supply societally acceptable answers to questions concerning race, but will nevertheless do racist things. There are lots of people who will say that blacks are no more inherently criminal than white, but will nevertheless move into gentrifying neighborhoods and immediately start frivolously calling the police on people who have lived there for years. There are plenty of people who will pay lip service to the importance of diversity, but will nevertheless move their children out of schools with lots of black children, regardless of the quality of education the school provides. One can say that they do not consider blacks to be lazier than whites and still pay black workers less or decline to hire them at all. Racism functions quite smoothly without "racists."
The practice of determining who is racist and who is not, who are the "real' racists and who are the racists by happenstance, is only useful for white people who wish to assuage their consciences, absolve themselves of the fact that they live in a country that is tilted in their favor. It is an exercise for liberals who would like to limit their contribution to dismantling white supremacy to voting every year for a candidate with a (D) next to their names. It is useful as a virtue-signaling exercise, and to performatively disassociate one’s self from the wicked and ignorant.
It isn't useful for those who seek to oppose racism or dismantle white supremacy. It isn't even useful for those who want to defeat Donald Trump.
(The promised calculation: The Republican party is 90 percent white and the Democratic party is about 60 percent white. If we assume that it is only white Republicans who believe that black people are more violent and criminal than white people, then this means that about 55 percent of white Republicans hold that view. If white people are the same no matter what party they're in, then we should expect that 55 percent of the fraction of the Democratic party that's white (60 percent) gives us the fraction of Democrats who believe that blacks are more violent and criminal than whites: 0.6 X 0.55 = 0.33, or 33 percent. This hypothesis is consistent with the evidence. Do the same calculations with the view that black people are lazier than whites, and you will find that the results are also consistent.)
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