Racism Doesn’t Need Mens Rea

The vast majority of white Americans (like most people) do not consider themselves racist, nor do they want to to be identified as such. Certainly, people like David Duke and Don Black openly embrace the label, yet polls suggest that only 10 to 15 percent of white Americans are willing to describe themselves as racially biased or racist. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential Election on November 8th, 2016, many pundits and politicians – particularly, but not exclusively on the right –  have argued that part of the reason why white working class voters turned towards Trump was that they were tired of being called racist by white liberals/Democrats and so abandoned the party en masse. The most recent example comes from conservative columnist David Marcus in a piece he wrote for The Federalist. Marcus states that:

The unfortunate place where we now find ourselves is one in which blatant attacks on white people, often from white people, are driving them further into a tribal cocoon. Samantha Bee’s awful and irresponsible berating of white women as the evil force behind Trump’s victory, while condescendingly describing magical people of color as the only ones who can save us, is a clear example of where white defensiveness and victimization are coming from.

In order to solve this problem of “white defensiveness,” many, Marcus included, have called for the Democrats to abandon discussions about race and instead try to focus on understanding the viewpoint of the white working class.

Overlooking the fact that this hypothesis doesn’t hold up tremendously well, as Trump did not meaningfully increase, except in very specific circumstances, his share of the white vote over previous GOP candidates, let us assume that there was a large movement of white voters to Trump and the Republicans and that to win future elections the Democrats need to win this population over. If so, is it necessary to adopt a version of the pundits’ strategy and cease to identify and rectify either overt or subtle racism in American society and politics?

I argue no, in fact, the Democrats have both a moral and political imperative to continue to highlight racism, particularly in the Trump administration, and to admonish those who tacitly or openly supported discriminatory and bigoted policies/politicians. With Donald Trump in the White House, it is now more than ever, critical for Democrats/liberals/progressives to call a racist a racist.

The first and most obvious point to make is that as the party of opposition, the Democrats have a moral and political obligation to stand up for both their supporters, many of whom will be targeted by a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, as well as to oppose the government and act as a check on their power. If they refuse to denounce policies such as mass deportations and voter ID laws as racist, the Democrats tacitly accept these policies and their inevitable consequences. Regardless of your belief about the moral arc of history or whether history has right or wrong sides, I would suggest that current liberals would want to be remembered more as Thaddeus Stevens rather than Alexander Long; rather be the principled as opposed to the compromising legislators. When tomorrow’s Dorris Kearns Goodwin or Steven Spielberg recount the Trump years, today’s progressives should want to be the heroes, even if it results in short-term electoral pain.

Yet, does a principled and vocal anti-racist approach to politics mean alienating white working-class voters and consigning oneself to short-term, self-imposed political exile as Macleans suggests it does? I would argue absolutely not. Here we return to the idea I brought up in the opening paragraph; most Americans do not want to be racist. Yes, calling people racist/discriminatory/bigots will temporarily make them mad and prompt swift and repeated denials. But it is these denials that are particularly interesting. Even the most committed Trump supporters deny accusations of racism with particular vigour:

Even if we accept that individual Trump partisans and campaign staff are disingenuous, that they really are racist and are lying to themselves and others, it is the political power of the accusation that is important. Trump supporters understand that if American voters believe Trump is racist they will not support him. Hence, it was important, at the very least, to convince voters who supported their candidate that it was okay, it was just Democrats crying wolf racist again and that you and Trump weren’t racist and you could vote for him while still feeling good about yourself. Even the post-election narrative continued in this vein, with Trump supporters emphasizing how many African and Hispanic Americans voted for him, so he couldn’t actually be a racist.

The problem for progressives is not in identifying racism in American society, but rather in explaining complex ideas such as systemic racism and inter-generational trauma in a simple to understand manner. One of the main problems is peoples’ popular conception of racism. For most people, the picture of racism is Sheriff Bull Connor setting the dogs on civil rights marchers or Alabama Governor George Wallace standing on the school steps railing against Washington, desegregation and “that communist Martin Luther King.” Hollywood movies such as In the Heat of the Night or Remember the Titans only serve to reinforce this image. However, these images are of an America that is in the past, today’s racist live in cabins in the mountains in Montana or attend Klan rallies in the Deep South. Racists don’t work shift work and live in Cleveland suburbs, have car payments and watch sports on Sunday. (Hat tip to fellow historian Sandy Barron for inspiring this entire paragraph)

There are many problems with this image but I want to highlight one, namely that racism does not require Mens Rea (the legal concept of intent). One can support and perpetuate racist structures/ideas/institutions without intending to. As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie explains, one can vote for Obama and still be racist. Support, however, is not a mortal sin if done out of ignorance. The hope is that if people can clearly understand how their actions or political views are causing other humans pain, they will desist. If presented with a clearly understood choice between their chosen candidate and being a racist, I suspect that enough (not all, or maybe even a majority but enough) voters will reconsider who they support. Enough voters at least will reconsider their vote to return the Democrats to power in 2020. Now we come to the real problem and that is that the left, drawing on discourses emanating from academia and inspired by post-modernism, has done a terrible job of explaining racism in an understandable and accessible manner.

By relying on ideas like micro-aggressions and trigger warnings, the right has been able to caricature the left as saying that, “all white people are racist all the time.” Hence the idea that progressives cry racism incessantly as a slur to legitimize political opposition has taken hold among, I would argue, not only conservatives but a wide swath of white voters. It is this perception that Democrats need to counter. The first step in doing is to articulate in a jargon-free manner exactly why certain policies and ideas are harmful and to highlight the real and human cost of say, forced deportations or police violence. Yes, it often can be exceptionally difficult to encapsulate centuries of oppression into an easy to understand package, but that is the challenge of politics.

It isn’t necessary to talk down to people however, but it is necessary to make sure that your message has as wide an audience as possible.  In order to be successful the left doesn’t need to shut up about racism. In fact, given the very real threats to racial equality that the Trump presidency represents, it needs to be even more vocal than ever. However, that also means being clear and concise in a way that the average American can understand. Part of the reason for the success (incomplete and partial as it may be) of the Civil Rights Movement was that Dr. King was able to articulate the harm and destruction Jim Crowe Laws caused every day for people who, just like you, were Americans too. It is that message of universality I would argue that Progressive America has lost and desperately needs to recapture.



One thought on “Racism Doesn’t Need Mens Rea

  1. Pingback: The Myth of Real America | 1930s or Today?

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