Are You Being Nice Enough to Racists?

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So mere days away from Armageddon — I mean, Trump’s inauguration, excuse me — we’re all wondering how Democrats are going to rebound in 2020.

Will they seek to rebrand themselves with the white working class by appealing to its concerns? Or will they double down on their base, and nominate a truly progressive candidate?

Ha, we’re just kidding.

We all know Democrats will run like hell from the “liberal” label. They will strain to convince Pennsylvania factory workers and Wisconsin farmers that the Democratic Party has learned its lesson and is abandoning “identity politics.” And then Democrats will ask white rural voters to grab a beer with them and talk about the Packers before heading out to the deer stand.

There are, of course, numerous issues with this approach. Let’s skip the obvious one for now, which is that Democrats will once again take the Latino vote for granted while dismissing progressives as silly elitists.

Instead, let’s analyze a very real problem, which is that many people who voted for Trump weren’t just being loyal Republicans, or looking to drain the swamp, or getting bamboozled by a con man.

No, many of them are damn racists who knew exactly what they were voting for. In fact, the link between racism and Trump mania is disturbingly clear.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s morally ok to court such voters. So how does one persuade them to abandon the Republican Party and its blatant xenophobia? How can we convince a person feeling white resentment or white anxiety (or whatever term euphemizes prejudice) that his attitude is not cool?

Well, apparently we have to dance around and be oh-so gentle about their bigotry. That’s because many studies have found that “when we call out racial prejudice… we may reinforce the idea that it’s normal to be prejudiced.”

How many times have you heard, “Everybody is racist”? The net effect of this canard is that true racists see their behavior as honest, as an innate part of being human, and not as disgusting behavior.

We are basically saying, “Hey, don’t get all down on yourself, Mr. White Working Class. You have every right to feel irrational, seething hostility at all those pesky immigrants.”

As you can imagine, it only gets worse from that point. Among the more disturbing revelations of many studies is that “accusations of racism can cause white Americans to become incredibly defensive — to the point that they might reinforce white supremacy.”

For the clincher, when prejudiced white people are called racist or reminded of their white privilege, “they feel like elites are trying to distract from the serious problems in their lives and grant advantages to other groups of people” (that would be ethnic minorities, of course). As a perfect encapsulation of our era, “this is how many white Americans feel, regardless of the facts.” In essence, “reducing people’s racism will take time and, crucially, empathy” because “shaming them in public … doesn’t work.”

So the bottom line is this: If we want to persuade racists to not be bigoted assholes, we have to be polite about it, and never bring up their actual racism or even acknowledge perfectly obvious facts about our society.

It’s all on us to persuade them.

To say the least, this is mind-boggling galling and Kafkaesque.

To be blunter, it’s positively fucked up.

After all, such an approach puts every ounce of the pressure on ethnic minorities and progressives to be nicey-nicey to racists. The actual bigots — the ones causing the problems — are to be coddled and caressed gently and sympathized with.

As many commentators have pointed out, ethnic minorities suffer from racism and bigotry “that goes well beyond incivility,” but apparently, “it is their job in the debate to remain civil, because that is the only productive way to reach across the aisle.” This can mean “casting a blind eye to obvious bigotry” and struggling to have “civil discussions with people who themselves may have already breached the bounds of civility.”

So once again, despite progressives having the weight of the truth and moral authority on their side, they must bend over backward to appease people who think a person speaking Spanish is grounds for a fistfight.

But that’s exactly what many social scientists are saying. One study — held up as a shining ray of hope — found that having a “nonconfrontational” conversation with prejudiced people can reduce bigotry against transgender individuals.

What’s surprising, however, is how many commentators just presume that transphobia is analogous to racism. This is debatable, because while prejudice is reprehensible in any context, the fact is that many Americans have never actually encountered a transgender person, and may not even be that familiar with the concept. So in theory, their bigotry may not be as virulent.

This is not the case with racists who have had a lifetime of experiences and tons of social pressure applied to them, but who still think all blacks are lazy. Is a quick, friendly chat with them really going to change their minds?

At this point, I should offer some kind of third way — a meshing of the best ideas that allows us to maintain our principles while still converting white supremacists to civilized norms.

But I’ll be damned if I can find that unicorn.

We seem fated to plaster on fake smiles, validate nauseating opinions, deny reality, and refrain from pointing out grotesque behavior in any way. Or we can continue to be loud in our condemnation of prejudice, knowing full well that yelling, “Racist!” at somebody is only going to backfire.

As with all cultural conundrums, there is no easy answer — only the perpetual frustration of the disenfranchised, and the unceasing battle against hatred.

 

Featured image: Chrisena Allen/Flickr

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