October 23, 2018

The Rush to Racism

About a month ago, when I last traveled to the United States, I purchased “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896” by Richard White. It is the latest volume of history produced as part of the authoritative Oxford History of the United States, and it takes a while to read.

It takes a while because of its length and detail — almost a thousand pages of scholarship and storytelling — and the way it constantly forces the reader to think about parallels of past and present.

The fate of immigrants is one such tempting parallel. When historian White writes about groups who rejected Catholics or Jews, or about groups who rejected immigrants from southern European countries or from China, the reader can hardly avoid the resemblances — and the differences.

One reads a book to get away from the daily noise of the news, and yet the news creeps in through the cracks.

Of course, the Gilded Age was a long time ago. But the inherent tension that underlies all debates about immigration is here: on the one hand, the benefits a country reaps when it accepts immigrants; on the other hand, the inevitable cultural change that immigrants force on their new country. And note that it was much worse then than it is now. As White describes it: In the 1890s, “concern over immigrants began to look more like panic.”

Trump is guilty of being reckless with the language he uses, but is it wise to call him a racist?

Every state has some kind of immigration policy. A state without such policy is not a state. And when devising such policy, opposition to immigration, as well as support for it, is natural and not irrational.

Sadly, the opposition often manifests itself in ugly racism, bigotry, populism and incitement. Thus, one cannot always identify the true motivations and fears behind it: Does the president oppose immigration from certain African countries because he thinks that these immigrants are less likely to integrate into the U.S. — or because of his dislike of the color of their skin?

In the past week, more newspapers and activists began using the term “racism” to describe the policy of Donald Trump, relying on a plethora of disturbing evidence. Indeed, Trump is guilty of being reckless with the language he uses. And he has a history of troubling incidents that prompt the question of racism.

But is it wise to call Trump a racist?

Consider the following argument: “Racism” is a terrible trait. It is also a trait that delegitimizes a person or the positions he or she is holding. At least, this is what most decent people hope. For this to be achieved — for “racism” to remain a uniquely negative allegation — two terms must be met: “Racism” must be clearly and narrowly defined; and the definition must be one that the vast majority of people accept.

Why? Because a broad, or a vague, definition of “racism” makes it a political tool that is hurled at too many positions and hence loses its effectiveness at being a red line beyond which positions become illegitimate, and because a nonconsensual definition of “racism” turns it from the ultimate sin to yet another matter of disagreement.

What happened last week when Trump was called a “racist”? There are two possibilities. The first: His legitimacy and his views eroded (because decent people do not want to be identified with racism). The second: The power of the term “racism” eroded (if you define the views of a third of the population as “racist,” you now have many people who no longer think that “racism” is so terrible).

Is Trump a racist? It is encouraging to see that the president himself vehemently rejects such accusations, hence proving that “racism” is still a negative enough term to scare off people. Still, some insist on calling him that — and curiously enough, it is often the same people who think it immature of Trump to insist on the term “Islamic terrorists” when describing a group of, well, Islamic terrorists.

Is it foolish for the president to specifically talk about “Islamist terrorism”? If the cost outweighs the benefit, then it is.

Is it essential to call the president a racist? Maybe, but first consider the possible negative impact that such expansive use of this terminology could have.

Think how bad it would be if the attempt to delegitimize Trump ends up even slightly legitimizing racism.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.