Who gets to define racial bigotry in politics?

Even as racism grows as a factor in our politics, our capacity to discuss it remains fraught.

Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour asks a question of President Donald Trump a day after the midterm elections. Trump would accuse her of racism.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour asks a question of President Donald Trump a day after the midterm elections. Trump would accuse her of racism.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

No matter the time or place, talking about America’s racial divide is never easy. But in the world of politics, well, it’s downright impossible to speak candidly without offending a large patch of the public.

Here are a pair of examples, ripped from this week’s headlines:

In the first, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) spoke the truth in a Daily Beast interview, when he offered that white voters felt “uncomfortable” with voting for African-American candidates as part of the reason why the election night outcomes for Democratic gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacy Abrams in Georgia remain, as of this writing, in doubt.

“I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” Sanders said, two days after the midterm election.


In the second, one day before Sanders’ interview was published, President Donald Trump held a vitriolic news conference, during which PBS’ White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked him if his appeals to white nationalists — who have long assumed a certain kinship with the president — played a role in the midterm outcomes.  The president angrily accused her of asking him a racist question.

Of course, outrage followed from the left.

And from the right, the president’s supporters pushed back, arguing that bringing race into his motives is racist itself.

Reasons for divergent and difficult-to-understand differences over race are manifold, but essentially it boils down to how we view our own place in the nation’s racial caste. As a nation of individuals, we are nonetheless identified en masse by the colors of our skin, creating a gulf between how we see and what we think of ourselves. The fact of the matter is that every American’s racial identity circumscribes our every interaction from the moment of our birth until long after our death.


Sanders offered his political assessment apparently unaware that both closely contested races remain unsettled heading into the weekend. In Florida, Gillum’s hopes to become the state’s first black governor rests on an expected recount of the ballots, where Ron DeSantis leads by fewer than a half percentage point — 38,515 votes out of more than 8 million votes cast. In Georgia, Abrams has refused to concede to her opponent, Brian Kemp, the Georgia Secretary of State, and has vowed legal action to scrutinize the ballots and force a runoff election.

However, as inarticulately as he stated it, Sanders analysis was spot-on. In fact, his assessment tracked with media reports that suggested the two high-profile, African-American gubernatorial candidates failed in their bids largely because white voters didn’t support them.

According to a CBS News analysis of Florida exit polls, about 13 percent of the Florida electorate is black and the majority voted for Gillum for governor, but the majority of white voters supported DeSantis. About 40 percent of the white Florida voters told pollsters they voted for Gillum. Similarly, the CBS News analysis of exit polls in the Georgia governor’s race noted that “race played a significant role in the election. Black voters comprised about 30 percent of the electorate and whites 60 percent — figures similar to recent elections. Abrams won the bulk of black votes (92 percent) and Kemp was up big among white voters (74 percent).”

By contrast, Trump’s bogus evasion of a question is in keeping with his history of saying and doing racist things, then accusing those who call him out of being racist themselves.

Admittedly, this isn’t easy to talk about in our private and intimate conversations; it’s a near-fatal topic to bring it up in public discussions. That’s why so many of us avoid the subject altogether, declining even to acknowledge racial identification’s grip over our lives and daily interactions with one another. For a public official, talking about racial identity rankles large segments of the population, regardless of political views, because it raises uncomfortable questions about privileges granted some and denied others in a supposedly egalitarian society.

Thus, when Bernie Sanders says race prevented black people from being elected governor, some on Twitter castigate and others cheer. And, similarly, when Trump rebuffs a tough question as racist, his supporters believe he’s speaking their truth and his detractors accuse him of divisive politics.


That raises the question of just what is racism and who gets to define it? Until we as Americans come to a shared definition of our common identity, the answer will continue to depend on the color of a person’s skin.