The late US Senator Robert Byrd has long been the Republican trump card (pun intended) when Democrats or others claim the GOP is racist, or at least too cozy with racists. Over the past two decades, every time I’ve written a piece detailing the actions or words of a racist Republican, or the party’s embrace of racists like Donald Trump, or racist laws designed to make it harder for black people to vote, I’ve heard from (mostly) white conservative readers challenging my assertions by evoking the name of Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who represented West Virginia as a Democrat and served in the Senate for 51 years.
To say it’s a silly dodge by people unwilling to force the party they support to be better on the issue of race is an understatement. They don’t even realize that the presence of Byrd in the Democratic Party after his racist early life illustrates that Democrats, many of whom are black and brown, are willing to embrace people who have atoned for awful racist mistakes instead of throwing them away and labeling them forever unredeemable. It’s healthy, and perhaps admirable, to leave the door to redemption open to even racists. That's what some of the family members of the people killed by Dylann Roof did, publicly forgiving the young white supremacist who committed a massacre inside a historic black church.
Whether we forgive racists or not, we need to recognize and acknowledge their racism and the harm it causes, particularly in the Trump era. But white Americans often recoil at the use of the R-word and make excuses for vile rhetoric and actions, as the Republican Party did for several years when it came to Iowa Congressman Steve King and his white supremacist leanings before he finally went too far last week. And the GOP isn’t alone—the media frequently uses weasel words to describe clear racism.
After King made news by saying to the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” NBC News advised its staffers in an email last week to “avoid characterizing [King’s] remarks as racist… It is ok to attribute to others as in ‘what many are calling racist’ or something like that.” It was only after that memo was reported on in a widely shared HuffPost story that NBC News reversed course in a second email that conceded it was “fair to characterize King’s comments as ‘racist,’ and point out that he has a history of racist comments, and the context can be shared that others hold that view as well.”
That initial choice underscores how bafflingly unhealthy the media discourse has gotten on the issue of race. But it would be wrong to believe this is just a continuation of the struggles the mainstream media has had using the word racist on air or in print since Trump came down that escalator and started saying most Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. Rather, it’s the latest sign that the media, like the GOP, is incapable of committing to rooting out the racism within. The press isn’t trying to protect the poor, white voters who are so often profiled from being falsely labeled. It’s trying to protect itself from having its own long overdue racial reckoning.
All that had changed between the issuance of the first and second memo is that NBC had been called on its bullshit. There's no evidence that it had done any deeper thinking on the issue. That’s why it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of questions Daily Show host Trevor Noah asked in a bit about King wasn’t too far off from what NBC had been asking inside its newsroom. “Cross burnings. Are they racist? Or just a dramatic way to roast marshmallows?” Noah’s” Racism Detective” asked.
According to NBC’s initial thinking, it would be unfair to label as racist what the Ku Klux Klan calls cross “lightings” because Klan members have long claimed they light in celebration rather than burn to destroy the sacred symbol of their Christian faith, and that the courts have said such acts can’t automatically be deemed racist intimidation.
Given that background, how are we ever to determine if it is OK to say on air or in print whether cross burnings are racist? How dare objective journalists decide the meaning of a thing, especially when it means attaching such an ugly label to a group of people? Should we let the Klan member decide? Or should we go with the experiences of the thousands of black people in the South who had to endure such acts on their front lawn throughout much of the 20th century, or watched the flames light up the night sky after one of the nearly 5,000 documented lynchings? Or would it be unfair to call such acts racist, knowing that it’s possible some of the men and women involved in the burnings were probably there out of solidarity with their family members and friends, not because they hate or were trying to scare black people? You know, like the Confederate soldiers who were fighting for states’ rights, not to create a nation built upon a permanent state of black enslavement?
I come not to mock NBC (OK, I come to mock it a little), but to illustrate the kind of thinking the “liberal” media in general has been using on the issue of race for far too long. Though NBC has been shamed for the leaked memo, media outlets throughout the country have been making similar choices. The media has cleaved to leaps of illogic to deny obvious racial realities even when it makes it harder to tell plain truths.
An open embrace of white supremacy is racist and that should be as controversial as saying the sky is blue. Choosing to support a man who has repeatedly said and done and proposed racist things over several decades is a racist decision, even if you are poor and struggling from the opioid crisis, even if that man isn’t only a racist. The poor white people who chose to stand with rich, white enslavers made a racist decision. The middle-class white people who went along with Jim Crow laws and social customs because they were “protecting” their own children and way of life chose racism, no matter if they treated individual black people kindly in private. The rich white people who pulled the lever for Trump because they thought he was a good businessman—and didn’t give a damn about the awful things he had proposed doing to black and brown people, or had already done—chose racism over equality even if they had a black girlfriend and voted for Barack Obama.
We know Trump is racist because of his words and deeds. This isn’t hard.
We are what we repeatedly do.
On nearly every other issue, journalists are unafraid to call things as they are. They pride themselves on being precise. God forbid they use who or impact when whom or affect would be grammatically correct. That’s why they know by heart the old adage attributed to Mark Twain, that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. That applies to how we write and talk about race as well. Saying racist is to note the thunder and the lightning. To say racially tinged or racially charged or what many are calling racist is to proudly tell readers about the flapping of a butterfly’s wings but fail to let them know about the Category 5 hurricane that resulted.
It is true that some people misuse or misapply or overuse the word racist, deeming anyone who is against race-based affirmative action, has a slip of the tongue, or uses the word nigger in a classroom setting to teach rather than demean. It is true that white people, and particularly conservatives and Republicans, in the minds of too many people are guilty until proven innocent when it comes to race. It is inaccurate to say that more than 60 million Americans supported Trump in 2016 because they are racist. We should be careful about when to apply the label.
But it is also true that 60 million Americans, at a minimum, chose Trump despite his racism and open bigotry. Simultaneously, mainstream media has repeatedly missed its annual targets to diversify, and that when a black journalist gets caught plagiarizing or doing awful work, it is too often falsely attributed to affirmative action programs that benefit white women more than black journalists anyway. The mainstream media has helped implant the image of the criminal as black in the minds of most Americans, and the black crack addict as dangerous and unworthy of empathy, and the brown man as terrorist—even though most acts of domestic terror over the past several years have been committed by white supremacists.
That’s why it was good that NBC was forced to reverse itself, that it was called out by journalists even within NBC News. But that’s akin to pruning a leaf and leaving the tree intact, the way the House GOP’s decision to formally scold King for his racism does little to uproot the racism within its ranks. Until the media finds a way to stop fueling racist stereotypes, finally “looks like America,” and no longer makes excuses for racists, it will keep wasting time asking if cross burnings are just dramatic ways to roast marshmallows.
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