Answering the Racist Question

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A while back, I was reading an old friend’s Facebook (FB) post about how both political sides are corrupt and another old friend commented, “I’m going to disagree with you on that point. True people on the Right listen to the other side without putting the other side down and point to facts…The difficulty I have is that the left likes to use emotion and opinion for the disagreement and when you confront them on where they got their information it’s MSN.”

I responded, “…your take is exactly what I experience in reverse, and when you ask them where they got their facts they’ll point to Fox, which I don’t think is reliable sourcing. Of course, social media has made it easier to get caught up in bubbles and tribalism and leads to only really hearing opinions that support our pre-existing opinions. I think this sorting has sort of lead to people not really talking “with” each other at all, rather talking “at” each other seems to be the norm…”

He agreed with my assertion, “Talk, listen and keep an open mind….” and that was the end of the discussion until a couple days ago.

Recently, President Trump posted a series of Tweets:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly…..and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation [sic] on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the broke and crime infested places from which they came. [sic] Then come back and show us how…it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

This lead to a political firestorm and the House of Representative’s voting to condemn the Tweets as racist (mostly along party lines), but there were four republicans and one independent who also voted to condemn the Tweets.

So, I decided to call the five legislators and thank them for showing their outrage and posted about it, “…I think we need to encourage any Republican that bucks the party to vote their beliefs and values. It’s this hyper-partisanship that seems to be tearing us apart and preventing us from really having discussion about the myriad of problems we need to solve.”

Most of the people who responded to my post were positive, but my old friend asked, “My question to them is what did the President say from their perspective that they found offensive.”

So I posted a variety of their statements and then responded with how “Go back to your country” is racist cliché. The statement has a long history of being used to demonize immigrant newly welcomed to America. In fact, many scholars trace the roots to as far back as 1798 and the Alien & Sedition Acts, which made it easier for authorities to remove immigrants who were critical of the government. It is almost exclusively used by white people to deride people who they think “don’t belong.” My congresswoman (one of two Native American women in Congress) weighed in on the controversy as well but from an indigenous perspective, “If anyone can say “go back,” it’s Native Americans… But indigenous people aren’t asking anyone to go back to where they came from.”

Ironically, after I visited the Isle of Lewis in Scotland (shortly before Trump’s election), where my grandfather came from, I signed up to receive job announcements from the University of the Highlands and declared that I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could find a job. Being in Scotland helped me understand that my grandfather did not feel like he had any choice but to emigrate. He couldn’t find work in Carloway, Scotland and was encouraged by his brother and the promise of stable work on the northern plains of Montana in the United States at the very beginning of the 20th century.

Nevertheless at the end of the discussion, my old friend still didn’t see the tweets as racist and concluded, “Sorry but no, because he then said “come back and show us how you fixed it.” If this was not in there then I would have to yield to your point.”

I’ve sat with that for a while now thinking that my perspective was that the original tweets were clearly racist and if you didn’t see that then 1) you didn’t understand the context and history, or 2) were willfully ignorant. I didn’t anticipate that he would question the predominant opinion about the tweets themselves, would question whether they were saying what the majority of opinion said they were saying.

Not wanting to be so quick to pass judgment, and as an exercise then, I’m going to break out the important information from the tweets and see if there is any other way to interpret them, a sort of critical interpretation.

Using italics to call attention to certain key phrases, here goes:

Trump starts with this statement, “So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all)…” While he doesn’t explicitly call out the legislators by name, the fact that he is referencing Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MN), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) has not been disputed thus far. These are four new democratic legislators; four outspoken women of color. The fact that three of them were actually born in the U.S. seems to not be a fact Trump knows.

So what countries is he referring to? If he knew that three of them had been born in the US then the countries may actually be only one (or is he labeling the US as having a government that is a “total catastrophe?”) Somalia. Rep. Omar is a refugee from Somalia (she immigrated to the US when she was 12) and is a naturalized US citizen.

But let’s continue, “…telling the people of the United States…how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the broke and crime infested places from which they came. [sic]. He is using the verb “to come” twice, so clearly he is referencing their countries of origin, “…originally came…[and] from which they came.” In grammatical terms, “which” is relative pronoun and is merely acting as a replacement for “country.” Indeed it would be a little wordy if he instead wrote, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the broke and crime infested places from the countries they originally came from.”

Another key phrase that signals that Trump does not recognize that they are American citizens or even legitimate legislators is, “…how our government is to be run.” As members of a co-equal branch of government that is exactly their job. They are duly elected members of “our government.”

To summarize, the key phrases thus far reads as follows: “So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe… now loudly…..and viciously telling the people of the United States…how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the broke and crime infested places from which they came. [sic] Then come back and show us how…it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

But is it racist?

When my friend cited, “Then come back and show us how…it is done” he was arguing that Trump was, in essence, saying, “Why don’t you go back to your original countries, fix them, then come back and show us how it is done.” Thus, since he asked them to come back, the original statement cannot be an equivalent of “Go back to your country,” which he did not dispute was a racist statement.

But another interpretation is that he was actually not even referencing their original countries, but the actual districts they represent. That’s a pretty generous interpretation and doesn’t necessarily square with the facts, yet let’s examine that as well. Rep. Ayanna Pressley represents Massachusetts’ 7th congressional district, which has a median income of over $60,000 (the US median income is roughly $30,000) and includes roughly three fourths of Boston. Boston is not crime infested, and its crime rate is equal to the national average. Rep. Ilhan Omar represents Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, which has a median income of over $60,000 and includes the entire city of Minneapolis. Minneapolis is not crime infested either. Rep. Rashida Tlaib represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, which has a median income of just over $35,000. It includes portions of Detroit and all of Wayne County. It does have a crime rate higher than the national average. Finally Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents New York’s’ 14th congressional district, which includes some of the eastern Bronx and the north-central Queens, which has a median income of a little over $58,000. New York City overall has one of the lowest crime rates of any major city in the U.S and is listed as the 10th safest major city in the world. Donald Trump was also born in Queens, the 5th Congressional District, and is represented by Greg Meeks, who voted to condemn the tweets as well. So clearly the “crime infested places from which they came” is not referencing their congressional districts.

The statement is clearly representing the countries they originally come from. In two of the legislators case that would mean: Omar’s Somalia and Tlaib’s Palestine (not an actual country). Pressley is African-American who was born in Cincinnati and raised in Chicago. Likewise, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez father and mother were both born in the US (New York and Puerto Rico respectively). So they have just as much of a claim to the US as President Trump, whose father was born in the US but whose mother was born in Scotland, and is part of the Macleod Clan (my family is part of the Mackenzie Clan) and calls the Isle of Lewis home too.

While suggesting that they “come back and show us how it is done” allows my friend to qualify Trump’s tweets as “not racist,” that opinion is not shared by most people and it doesn’t square with avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer, who said, “He gives us nothing outside of racist tweets. And by racist tweets, I mean tweets that are meaningless and cheap and express the kind of sentiments you might hear from your drunk uncles while he’s watching Hannity.” I’d stumbled across Richard Spenser’s response to Trump’s tweets and posted an admittedly snarky comment that if the most famous white nationalist thinks the tweets are racist, then they probably are.

He still wasn’t convinced and in quick succession on the next night posted a couple of examples of Trump working with African-Americans and even promoting an African-American general bragging he had more pictures to show me if I was interested. He clearly thought he’d “trumped” my point by posting a variation of the “How can he be racist if he has black friends and worked with black people?” response.

Of course, I was not surprised and it pointed out what I’d been saying as one of the biggest problems with how discussions about race are situated. From my take, whenever these episodes blow up, the offender displays a lot of umbrage and says (as Trump did) variations of the, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” This statement points out that people who really haven’t looked at, or had to look at, race in America don’t understand that the majority of people talking about race today (usually on the left) aren’t coming from the position that being labeled racist does not mean that the offender is always a racist. If the accuser is careful, which I was, they focus on the behavior, the actions, and the words and don’t label the offender as racist. Unlike the color of your skin, being racist is not a permanent condition. People can learn, can change. That Donald Trump, and my friend who supports him, so clearly demonstrates that he doesn’t get this means that we’re not even having the same conversation.

I tried to point that out and linked to the Ipsos poll that showed that the majority of Americans think Trump’s tweets were racist. And then he fell back to questioning whether they asked about this statement, “come back and show us how you fixed it.” Is that a nuance that the polling firm missed? Did they not take that statement seriously? Was he conceding that asking the question in the first place was indeed a racist act?

I don’t know. But to hang your belief on that when almost no one else is strikes me as rather odd. And yet, I didn’t say, as Charles Blow did, “…if you still can’t bring yourself to do so [call Trump’s tweets racist] — you are part of the problem.”

Racism is a social construction. Humans aren’t born racist. They learn to be racist over time. And as such, Trump could change his ways, could learn from his mistakes, but for that he’d actually have to admit that the tweets in question were racist. And Trump doesn’t have “a racist bone in [his] body” and also doesn’t like to apologize. Not having a racist bone doesn’t mean you can’t say, write, tweet, post racist things. Rather than a skeletal metaphor, the correct one, as popularized by Jay Smooth, is one of having a little “racism stuck in your teeth” like telling someone that they have a piece of food stuck in their teeth or crumbs in their beard, etc. It’s not a defining characteristic of who they are rather it is something they can do something about. Namely brush off their beard, clean their teeth. So Trump’s statement about the “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen showed that he still has some racism in him. That is all I was saying.

Finally, so what do I do with my friend who doesn’t think the tweets are racist? This has been my challenge for the last three years. Every time I try and have a discussion with someone who is a Trump supporter it’s like they are living in a different world than I am. We can’t come to any agreement on our terms or the exact meaning of his phrases so we can’t reach any agreement. My friend and I can agree that the tweets were “unnecessary” but I don’t see “…Then come back and show us how…it is done” as scrubbing the earlier parts of the tweets of their historical racist messaging. If anything, I come from a place that is looking for Trump to make a bad statement, be indelicate, and not word things well. I don’t think Donald Trump is a good president and don’t agree with many of his policy positions nor enjoy watching or hearing him. I assume he has the worst of intentions. My friend, however, seems content to not assume the worst. It makes for frustrating conversations for sure. But given the option of talking with each other about our differences or using other tools to hash out our differences, I’ll take discussion every time.

July 19, 2019

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