In her article Saturday about Donald Trump, Jenée Desmond-Harris welcomes the fact that the presidential candidate has brought race and racism to the foreground. Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has made explicit what many voters had been thinking in private.
Up until now, a certain brand of politicians only talked about race and immigration through somewhat elaborate dog whistles, a long a staple of conservative talk radio. Racially charged messages have been there for years, but they required a degree of ambiguity that allowed those who used them to deny any nefarious intent when pressed. Trump has done away with all those niceties and doubletalk, driving the public discourse of the GOP primary to a place far from subtlety or hidden meanings. We can no longer pretend that there is not such a thing as racist discourse in the United States, now that one of the two major parties will be running a candidate that won the primary using it.
In a sense, the rise of Trump does make it clear that racism is still here, alive and well. What I am not so sure about, however, is that making this explicit is actually good news.
First of all, the vast majority of Americans are not racists, or at least not racist in the old sense of the word. The amount of people that truly, consciously, explicitly believe that Caucasians are superior than other races is negligible. Baring some fringe groups, almost no one out there is proudly, loudly racist, and believes himself as such.
Today’s racism is more subtle, and for that reason, much harder to confront. It is the kind of racism that makes people be perfectly fine with “the blacks” in the abstract, and admire many of them (be it Denzel Washington, be it Neil deGrasse Tyson), but allows them oppose the construction of low-income housing in their cozy suburb. It is the kind of discrimination that makes HR departments create racial diversity programs, but at the same time discard resumes with Latino-sounding names or dismiss a candidate because they have an accent. It is even present in well-meaning efforts, as when politicians and commentators identify poverty and race, without realizing that the majority of Blacks and Hispanics are actually not poor.
No one really thinks of himself as a racist, and no one really wants to be one, but our society has managed to produce racially-biased discrimination and disparities nonetheless because all of us, in our day to day lives, sometimes take a racist mental shortcut without really meaning it.
Overcoming these biases, these shortcuts, is actually much more difficult, as they are build upon socially acceptable patterns and behavior. Most people don’t blink an eye when residents of a wealthy suburb litigate against multi-family housing for years, even if there is a strong racial component to the fight. Business happen to have all-white management teams, shrugging away that they did not happen to find any good minority candidates the last seven times they hired. Politicians keep patronizing inner city residents.
However, social conventions and behavior can change, and with them the attitudes and beliefs that lie behind them. Aristotle, when talking about education, discussed how in order to became virtuous we need to learn how to do so. We learn by doing, by just behaving how we are supposed to behave at first, until it becomes a habit. Once we become used to doing good, then we build a disposition towards virtue, and internalize that change.
Many social taboos about race in America, many of the things that you can not say aloud, play a role in the building of these habits. Someone might believe that muslims are dangerous, but social customs, polite discourse and (yes) political correctness enforce a certain degree of self-restrain. That person that might be tempted to discriminate against muslims knows that there is a social norm against speaking out. Even if the virtue of tolerance is not there yet, coexistence and racial peace is build upon a foundation of learning by doing, on habits developed after years of steady advance.
This is why the emergence of a loudmouth, populist, overly racist candidate is bad news. Tolerant, peaceful post-racial societies are the product of years and decades of social learning. Old institutions and social traditions are shunned and displaced, but new attitudes are slowly learned, consolidated and shared across generations. Trump, and other politicians of his ilk, risk undoing much of this process. By making many old racial tropes again socially acceptable (or at least acceptable enough to be discussed in public), Trump might bring back old attitudes. Those that were not racist aloud and slowly learning to leave prejudice behind now have an opening to go back to old habits.
Truth is, social institutions and attitudes are often much more maleable and open for change by political and social leaders than we think. The sudden, inspiring shift regarding gay marriage and homophobia in the past few years is a testament to that. But change goes both ways, and a sudden change in attitudes towards race, racism and religious tolerance is not out of the question.
Not long ago, far right parties in Europe were seen as fringe movements, sitting on the margins, relics of the past with nowhere to go. They were talked about, debated, discussed as eye-openers to the enduring racism of the few. Now they are close to outright winning elections in many countries.
The rise of trumpism is worrisome. Sure, it allows us to name the problem, as racism is again explicit. The ugly truth behind many of America’s ills is now in the open, and it creates an opportunity of addressing and confronting it. But this is a battle that goes beyond that. Explicit racism is in a different class of the boring, day to day discrimination and bias. It is something that threatens our social fabric, opening the door to making discrimination and prejudice again acceptable.
Social bonds and institutions sometimes are a fragile equilibrium that serve as restraints to our own worst instincts. Trump and trumpism might unravel them, even in defeat, creating lasting damage to the fabric of the country. We might come to regret the day that we wished racism was discussed in the open.