Back in the 1970s, there was an oft-aired public service announcement featuring a boy and his granddad down at the fishin' hole that taught an important lesson about the seamless tapestry of humanity. The boy asks what "prejudiced" means, because his friend Jimmy called him prejudiced. Prejudiced, Grandpa explains, "is when you react to someone because of their religion or their color." "I don't do that!" says the boy, but Grandpa is smart enough to know a lie when he hears one. He asks who Jimmy is, and the boy says, "Jimmy's one of my Jewish friends." Then Grandpa goes in for the kill. "Then you are prejudiced," he says, "because you think of Jimmy as your Jewish friend, and not your friend." Case closed.
It may look a little simplistic in retrospect, but the ad highlights something important about minority status: When you're in the majority, you don't have to worry that people look at you and see first your religion or race or sexuality. You don't have to worry about being forced to wear a cloak made of other people's sins or other people's assumptions. One of the things we mean when we talk about "privilege" is the privilege to be only your individual self.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Donald Trump. Imagine I had asked you a few days ago, "Do you think that if President Trump were speaking at a White House event honoring Native American 'code talkers' who served in World War II, he'd take the opportunity to roll out his 'Pocahontas' jibe at Elizabeth Warren, which so many Native Americans find bigoted and insulting?" Chances are you'd have responded, "Of course he would," particularly if you knew about Trump's long history of making derogatory comments about Native Americans. And so he did. This was part of his remarks:
I just want to thank you because you're very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her "Pocahontas." But you know what, I like you because you are special. You are special people. [Trump]
First of all, "they" don't call Sen. Warren "Pocahontas." Only Trump does. And if you aren't familiar with the story, her family lore has it that she has some Native American ancestry. In a couple of instances during her career as a law professor, she was listed in a directory as a minority, but there's no evidence for the claim some conservatives make that she got any jobs or other professional advantages because of that.
But in reality, Warren has nothing at all to do with those veterans. Yet Trump looked at them and immediately made the association: These guys are Native Americans, and I make fun of Elizabeth Warren for saying she has some Native American ancestry! I'll bring that up right now! It reminded me of the time White House reporter April Ryan, who is African-American, asked Trump a question about the Congressional Black Caucus at a press conference, and Trump responded, "Well I would, tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?"
That, Donny, is what prejudice means.
There's really no point in beating around the bush anymore, so I'll just come out and say it: President Trump is a racist, and it's time we stop pretending otherwise.
I say that with some reluctance, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's a statement about what's in someone else's head and heart, which no one can ever know with complete and total certainty. The second is that, particularly when we're talking about a public figure, what's far more important than what lies in their head and heart is what they do. As a point of comparison, Rush Limbaugh has spent years propagating negative stereotypes about African-Americans and encouraging his mostly white audience to see public policy issues through the lens of racial resentment. Is he a racist? Who knows. But he is most certainly a race-baiter, and that's where he has his poisonous effect on the public.
Likewise, what's most important about Trump is the way he encouraged a white racial backlash, promoted it, and ultimately rode it to the White House. Don't forget that what transformed him from a buffoonish celebrity into a buffoonish political figure was making himself America's most prominent birther, an advocate of the rancid, racist theory that our first black president could not possibly be a real American. He backed that up by demanding Barack Obama's school transcripts — again, on the theory that a black man couldn't have been qualified to be admitted to Columbia University and Harvard Law School on his own merit.
Trump also began his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. He said he couldn't be treated fairly by the judge assigned to the Trump University fraud case, because "he's a Mexican." In fact, the judge is an American who happens to have Mexican heritage. Trump proposed banning Muslims from the United States, and spread the libelous story that American Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the 9/11 attacks. To this day, he continually starts Twitter feuds with prominent African-Americans, to whom he sometimes refers as "ungrateful." In case you haven't been following along, "ungrateful" is the new "uppity."
Is there any serious person who doubts anymore that Trump is a racist? And I mean besides Trump himself, who insists that he is "the least racist person that you ever met."
This is a touchy subject. In recent years, conservatives have become inordinately sensitive about charges of racism. Indeed, many of them have convinced themselves that the only form of racism that remains in America is liberals falsely accusing white conservatives of being racist. And it is certainly wrong to make an accusation of racism based on a single comment, or even two.
But how many racist comments does one man have to make before we say, "Yep, that dude's racist"? Whatever the number is, President Trump passed it a long time ago.