Purely Symbolic and Without Substance?
Using racially coded language.
Posted Jan 15, 2018
By Kevin Cokley, Ph.D.
One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes is “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor political nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.” These words ring truer now more than ever in light of President Donald Trump’s recent comments questioning why we are letting people from “sh*thole countries” come here.
The countries to which he referred are Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations. Perhaps the fact that these individuals are black and brown is a mere coincidence. Surely Trump would not be so blatantly racist. Would he? If there was any question about the racially motivated nature behind his comments, this was put to rest when he later said that the U.S. should have more people coming in from places like Norway.
King understood that there comes a time when you have to stand on your principles, speak truth to power, and not defend the indefensible. It has become abundantly clear that there is nothing Trump can say or do that will result in his supporters holding him accountable and calling his behavior what it is: racism.
On this MLK Day, it would be disingenuous for supporters of Trump to celebrate the ideals of MLK, yet remain silent on (or worse, defend) the repeated racist statements that come out of Trump’s mouth. Silence (or worse, defense of Trump) is the moral equivalent of endorsement.
The unwillingness of Trump’s supporters to call him out for racism is consistent with what sociologist Joe Feagin has referred to as the “paradoxical phenomenon” of white racism, in which some white people claim not to be racist, yet hide or deny their racist attitudes through euphemisms and code words.
Trump does not publicly use explicitly racially derogatory language, something that even his most diehard supporters would begrudgingly have to admit was racist. Instead, he uses racially coded language. For example, some researchers argue that instead of overtly criticizing President Barack Obama’s race, Trump peddled the birther myth about Obama being born in Kenya instead of the United States. Trump has mastered the subtleties of communicating racist sentiments without explicitly using race in his language.
Imagine if Obama had referred to European countries the same way that Trump referred to African countries and stated that the U.S. should have more people coming from countries such as Nigeria and Ghana.
When Trump made comments about a federal judge’s Mexican heritage making him unfit to preside over a case, Trump loyalist Jeffrey Lord spun it as Trump actually calling out racism. To his credit, House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to Trump’s words as “textbook racism,” but has done little else to hold Trump accountable.
It has been especially painful and embarrassing to watch CNN’s token black Trump loyalist Paris Dennard repeatedly attempt to defend Trump’s words and actions. He inexplicably defended Trump’s Charlottesville comments about there being hatred, bigotry, and violence on both sides, and then suggested that the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville received a bad rap from the media. In one CNN segment when he was asked how he, as a black man, could support Trump who supported a candidate who talked about days being great in slavery, Dennard instead dodged the question and turned the conversation into a debate about his blackness.
Political differences in ideology are one thing. Defending blatantly racist comments is another.
Some may argue that this is nothing more than a partisan opinion. However, this is not the case. There are several individuals with whom I have political differences of opinion (Ana Navarro and Tara Setmayer come to mind), yet I have been impressed with their principled stands, especially when so few members of their party and Trump supporters are willing to do so.
For the good and decent Americans on the sidelines, when will we take the politically unpopular position among Trump’s base and disavow Trump for his racism? Until we answer that question, any celebration of MLK Day will be symbolism without substance.
We know who Trump is. The question is: Who are we? To Trump supporters who truly don’t embrace racist views, who are you?
Kevin Cokley is director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and a fellow of the UT System Academy of Distinguished Teachers.