As hard as they have labored to avoid it, conservative Americans are slowly, reluctantly, even painfully coming to grips with the evil wrought by the racism and white supremacy infecting our country.
Some of us have long warned of the dangers associated with the rising tide of armed and angry white men who feel their superior place in American society is imperiled by an increasingly multicultural nation. For the most part, conservative policymakers and right-wing pundits have ignored the obvious, turning a wilfully blind eye to the threat that white supremacists pose to all of our freedoms.
Those who point out racial hypocrisy and the disparately unfair treatment of people of color are often accused of engaging in some gas-lit version of reverse racism. But embracing such a view requires a mass disregard of racial disparities, such as those found in law enforcement and which contributed to the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement. Anti-racism activism sprang up in response to the legitimate community outrage over police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among many others.
A modest crack in the wall of denialism appeared on Monday, when President Trump called out “racist hate” and condemned “white supremacy.” In remarks to a still-grieving nation following a weekend of deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump used those loaded terms in connection with the gunman in the Texas shooting, who held demonstrably vile, racist, and anti-immigrant attitudes.
“The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed with racist hate,” the president said in remarks from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. “In one voice, our nation must condemn bigotry, hatred and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
Trump’s condemnation no doubt rings hollow to many of his critics — myself included — since he foments racial resentment with his own divisive and intolerant rhetoric, targeting non-white migrants, immigrants and racial minorities as scapegoats for the nation’s great challenges.
This could be clearly seen in the days immediately preceding last weekend’s deadly shootings, when Trump let loose a fusillade of racist tweets disparaging the predominately black city of Baltimore and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, an influential Democrat who represents the city and is chair of a key House committee that’s investigating him.
Before attacking Cummings, Trump directed a string of racist comments at four House Democratic women of color, who had protested against White House polices on migrant detention camps along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart recently noted, Trump traffics in racist tropes to signal his solidarity with white supremacists who are unfailingly loyal to him.
“The president’s use of stereotypes when speaking about black communities and communities of color — attacks that he doesn’t use on poor white communities affected by the opioid crisis, or predominantly white regions struggling economically — have been well-documented, with places like Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, and Ferguson being presented as uniquely violent and dangerous, and therefore unworthy of Trump’s support or protection,” Lockhart wrote.
The impact of Trump’s use of racist language as a political shield is manifest. Consider, for example, the former FBI counterterrorism agent who said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that the nation’s law enforcement agencies are reluctant to investigate aggressively white nationalist extremists, fearing they might upset the White House for appearing to attack Trump’s base of supporters.
“There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base,” Dave Gomez, a former FBI agent, told the newspaper. FBI Director Christopher Wray “is an honorable man, but I think in many ways the FBI is hamstrung in trying to investigate the white supremacist movement like the old FBI would. It’s a no-win situation for the FBI agent or supervisor.”
But the truth can’t be overlooked forever, and signs of changing attitudes are beginning to break through.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, called the El Paso shooting “a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.” His comments proceeded the president’s and represented something of an early, independent break from his typical lockstep embrace of whatever Trump says or does.
The right-leaning Washington Examiner posted an online editorial Monday in advance of the president’s remarks, urging Trump to “use the bully pulpit to become a leading crusader against white nationalism and racism…. Some conservatives and Republicans have hesitated to acknowledge that this is growing scourge, but after El Paso any such reluctance is unacceptable . . . Trump needs to make clear that he hates white nationalism as something un-American and evil.”
Did these few, lonely voices from among his staunch supporters persuade Trump to utter the words “white supremacy,” which so many in his ranks have denied even exists? Or could there be another reason?
The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein said Trump’s racism is beginning to cause blowback on his standing among some white supporters. Specifically, Brownstein wrote recently that “polling throughout Trump’s presidency has indicated that his belligerent and divisive style raises more concern among women voters than men in one of his most important cohorts: the white working class.”
While it’s far from a tipping point in the nation’s struggle against racism, the fact that Trump felt enough pressure amid the nation’s grief over the Texas and Ohio shootings to condemn white superiority represents something of a historic moment worth marking.
Maybe, just maybe, it will signal the beginning of a change in attitude among conservative Americans who have been blind and deaf to the creeping dangers of white supremacists in their midst.