Racism in plain sight

Does it seem to you there’s been a significant increase in overt acts of racism by public figures in the last two years? I’m not sure anyone has actually been keeping track, but we’ve sure seen a lot of examples recently.

Consider Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a strong supporter of Donald Trump and a leading member of the House Republican Freedom Caucus. At last week’s hearing at which Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, testified, Meadows decided to “prove” that the president is not a racist by having a black Trump acquaintance and HUD employee, Lynne Patton, stand behind him during the hearing.  (“some of my best friends…”) Case closed.

Well, maybe not. It’s hard to think of a more transparent ploy.  When another member of the committee, Rashida Tlaib, newly elected Congresswoman from Michigan, called out the stunt, Meadows got indignant and tried to give the impression that he didn’t have a racist bone in his body. That claim got a little dicey when the internet produced examples of Meadows urging that Barack Obama be sent back to Kenya “or wherever he was from”.  It’s amazing how often racism and hypocrisy go together.

Meanwhile in Maryland, a Democratic state legislator from Harford County was overheard describing an area in black-majority Prince George’s County as a “N…  district.”  Just to be clear, this happened in 2019, not decades ago.  Mary Ann Lisanti has stumbled through various explanations and rationalizations, including a claim that “everyone” has used that expression at some point.  Despite that compelling defense, it’s hard to find a public figure in the State who has not called on her to resign.

Right now, I’m skipping over recent history, such as the “blackface” escapades of the Virginia Governor and Attorney General, or the ways in which numerous public policies have had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color.  Congress, lots of state legislatures and even the U.S Supreme Court, with its head-spinning rationale in nullifying a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act, have all contributed to a retreat from the Civil Rights progress that was made in the 1960s.

Instead, I’m trying to understand why so many people currently think it’s okay to express their racial bigotry publicly.  I’m not arguing, of course, that covert racism is a good thing, but, rather, that the overt expression has encouraged, even empowered, growing numbers of people to speak and act on their biases.

In one sense, it’s Barack Obama’s fault.  If he hadn’t had the audacity to be elected president, all those people terrified at the notion of  a black man being president might have stayed undercover.  More significant than just the fact of him being president, however, were the constant attacks on him by large numbers of conservatives, including Republican office holders.

The “birther” movement was nothing but racism and was based on nothing but prejudice.  Did you know that John McCain  was not born in the United States?  Did you ever hear anyone raise questions about whether he was a U.S. citizens?  There was, of course, no reason to, exactly as there was no legitimate reason to question Obama’s citizenship.

Racism has always been with us.  Slavery really is this country’s original sin.  Despite nonsensical claims to the contrary by people like John Kelly, Trump’s one time chief of staff, the root cause of the Civil War was the dispute about slavery.  The years after the War, Reconstruction and then the Jim Crow era, changed much less than most of our history books tell us.

It was the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and a series of Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s, that began chipping away at the legal structure of discrimination in this country. I also believe that, however halting and imperfect the progress, societal views have been progressing in the last half century.  But not universally.

You figured out long ago whether this argument is going.  Leaders, both formal and informal, help set the context for public opinion and behavior.  What is acceptable?  What is outside  the norms of  society?

When a man who was a leading spokesman for the “birther” movement ran for president in 2015, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that he would bring his racist perspective to the presidency.   It didn’t take Michael Cohen telling us at the hearing last week that Donald Trump is a racist to reveal the truth.  We’ve had evidence for as long as he has been in the public eye.

Trump’s assertion that there were “good people on both sides” of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia was a blatant demonstration of his bigotry.  Again, we can also go back to his record as a New York developer or to that of his father to find plenty of corroborative evidence.

Whether or not the president is necessarily a national role model, there is no doubt that his words and actions have a significant impact on many citizens.  Trump has displayed the total absence of any moral compass, a disregard for basic values, even ones long held sacred from the Constitution.   He is basically an amoral person who, if it benefits him at the moment, slides easily into being immoral.

His racism is a given, unchangeable.  The bigger challenge at this juncture in our history is all those citizens who are not only untroubled by his bigotry but who take it as a license to act similarly.  Actions such as a tax law that only benefits the richest Americans may eventually be reversed.  The damage to race relations in the country however, if we are not careful and diligent, may be a much more enduring legacy of the Trump presidency.