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There’s a strange and difficult question that has to be asked in the wake of Biden’s victory over Trump. Do the numbers really say what they appear to? Does half of America really support hate?
It seems too ugly to be true. So the way that pundits often put it is this. “Half of Americans can’t be racists!!” The idea here is simply a kind of populist appeal to mass numbers — half of a country can’t be bad people!! Alas, quite the opposite is true. A cursory check of history tells us how much so. More than half a country can be racists, bigots, full of hate, and so forth. How much so? Think about apartheid South Africa — how much of its white population was racist? Think about those Asian societies which are still caste societies today. The examples are endless. But the best one is America itself.
Think back in history not so long ago — less than one human lifetime. America was still a segregated country. And yet it was a democracy. More than half its population believed in the idea that blacks and whites should be kept separate. Was segregation racism? Of course it was. It is more or less the canonical example of racism.
Now think about the struggle for gay rights. It was only recently in human history that things like gay marriage or even being out became socially acceptable and legally protected. Until then, much more than half a society was bigoted and prejudiced.
Think about how long it took for women to win the vote. That was an example of more than half a society — at least among men, this time — being badly misogynist and sexist.
Think about those parts of the world which are theocracies today. More than half the population supports the idea of religious law, which is usually itself made up of some combination of bigotry, stupidity, and hate.
So a glance at history tells us the way pundits frame the question — asking incredulously “But half a country can’t be…bad people!!” — is wrong. Badly wrong. Sure, half a country can be all kinds of terrible things — and throughout history, it often has been. This line of thinking is easy to demolish — just a moment’s reflection tells us how badly mistaken it is. And it sheds light on the mistake it makes, too.
So. Is half of America…racist? Let’s examine the question objectively. Not to cast aspersions — but simply to examine reality. Half of America or thereabouts — just under half — supports all the following things, which occurred during the Trump years. Kids in cages in camps — of only the “wrong” ethnicity. “Family separations,” which seem to be a crime against humanity, against of the “wrong” ethnicity. Demonization and scapegoating. Brutality and violence. Institutional dehumanization — the state working to deny the personhood of certain ethnic groups.
If I supported all those things, or at least turned a blind eye to them, would I be a racist?
Here, Ibram X Kendi’s way of thinking about racism comes in helpful. He says that not being a racist is about being anti-racist. That is, not just objecting to racism, in some abstract way, but being decisively against it. If we adopt that framework, then it should be easy to see that, for example, letting a President demonise minorities — and rationalising it away by saying, “Oh, he’s just talking crap” — badly fails the test of anti-racism.
If we look at reality, about half of America fell for the Big Lie. The one that fascism is based on — and always has been. Fascism, remember, in my telling of the story, isn’t just what the Nazis did to Weimar Germany. It is the America they studied, to model their race laws and hatred on. Fascism was born in America, in its centuries long genocide of Black people, in its annihilation of Natives, in its long, sordid history of hate.
The Big Lie that fascism — and racism is a kind of fascism — tells is this. Hated minorities are responsible for the woes of the majority. They bring impurity, corruption, filth, moral corrosion and social degeneration. The way back to “greatness” — which is what the majority, since they are pure and noble and true in blood, genetically superior — therefore is to annihilate or enslave minorities. The justification is that they are subhuman — less than persons. To cleanse them away is to purify a society in blood and virtue.
That was the story of America until 1971 — when segregation ended. White Americans don’t want to admit that — even liberal ones. But that is how illiberal white America is licensed to hate. Even the “good” white Americans don’t want to face the ugly truth of their country’s history. Until 1971 or so, it was the world’s biggest apartheid state. When I say that, they run away, trying to hide this fact under the rug. But hiding it that way only lets racism in America grow and fester. And not just racism — but all the other kinds of hate, too. Bigotry, prejudice, and so on.
Liberal white Americans need to understand a few things, therefore.
One, they are very much in the minority in their own social group, and yet they badly overestimate themselves. The majority of white Americans don’t just support hate — they support institutionalised hate, becoming the law of the land, the way society is run, its norms and values and codes and creeds. White liberals badly overestimate their numbers and cuase.
That is why, two, when we minorities point out painful truths to them, they ignore it. But that too is a form of mild supremacism — the idea that the White always knows best, more, the most. White Americans need to understand that their social group is failing society, and failing it badly. How and why?
That brings me to point three. Even white liberal Americans are in denial about how bad the situation of race and colour and creed in America really is, how bad it’s history has been, and until how recently America has been a state run by and for hate. 1971 was the year America even attempted to become some kind of vaguely modern democracy.
Biden won. But America has not really had it’s reckoning with hate just yet. At least white America hasn’t. Let me try to sum up.
Can 71 million people be racists? Of course they can. That was the story of the entire Western world, more or less, until not so long ago. It’s not impossible for societies to be made of prejudice and hate and ignorance. Until very, very recently in human history, that was the norm. 20% of the world, the white Western part, went out and colonized, enslaved, and brutalised much of the rest — and much of that was driven by theories of how some races were superior to others.
It’s not nice to draw that conclusion. I understand why so many want to wriggle out of it, especially white American intellectuals. It’s a profoundly ugly and uncomfortable truth to hear, to bear, to carry.
Let’s ask the question a different way. To support the terrible things that happened during the Trump years — is that being a racist? If your kids were taken away, and put in cages, because of the colour of their skin — did you see any French people being put in the camps? Any Danish families being ripped apart? But if they were, and I said nothing, what would that make me?
If Trumpists aren’t racists, then surely the word holds no meaning whatsoever. Then a racist is only someone who actively, say, beats a person for the colour of their skin. Not someone who, say, cheers on a head of state calling for hated minorities to be beaten. And that is self-evidently ridiculous and illogical and absurd and morally repugnant.
To call the millions of Americans who support Trump racists is to understate the case. Many of them appear to also be prejudiced against any form of deviation from the mean, from being gay to women’s rights and so forth.
It’s more accurate to say that half of America is still hateful. 71 million people can be full of hate, and in this case, they are.
Again, let me stress this isn’t an insult. But rather a sad observation. Let me add some more context to it. To make the transition to being a society free of structural racism — or at least one that aspires to be — is one of the and fundamental aspects of modernization. When we say things like “America isn’t a modern society yet”, one of the things we mean is precisely that it’s not even a society whose white majority aspires to be rid of structural racism yet.
But that is not so odd. Around the world, racism is still very much a living evil, and so is bigotry. If you go to Asia, or Africa, for example, all kinds of racism prevail. Shades of skin become markers of social position and status, and differences in sexual orientation are verboten. Many of these societies are not yet modern in the sense that racism and bigotry are some of their key cultural values and social structures, too. They are illiberal, not yet mature and modern democracies. America is very much on this list.
But that’s not some kind of pronouncement of social doom or moral damnation, either. People can change. Their attitudes and values can grow and evolve. To say that someone is a racist isn’t to say that they will be one forever. The only way that societies mature and develop is when widespread social attitudes do.
Hate — in all its forms — is not something that’s fixed. It’s something that’s learned. It sounds like a cliche, but its true — when I was young, nobody hated me for the colour of my skin. That came later. We minorities all know that hate is something that’s learned, passed down from grandfather to grandson, and there is a time in a child’s life where, suddenly, they stop talking to their friends who they have been told are not like the, good for them, to be associated with anymore. Hate is a kind of ignorance, in other words.
Why does that matter?
To say that “71 million Americans still appear to be deeply hateful” isn’t an insult. It’s an observation. A grim one, to us minorities. One that affects us deeply — how do you live in a society that’s so hateful? How do you trust the stranger on the street? How do they feel about you, and what are they capable of? It’s an exercise in trauma — but I digress. It’s not an insult. It is a factual and empirical observation about levels of ignorance.
In America, white people — the majority — seem to be transmitting the same old cultural attitudes and values to their children. Those minorities aren’t like us. They’re dirty, impure, unclean. We’re the pure ones. This country belongs to us. They are less than us. Are they really people at all?
Trump might be gone, but Trumpism survives, among America’s white majority. I can’t redeem them. It’s not my job to make excuses for them, like pundits do, asking rhetorically, “But 71 million people can’t be racists, can they?!” Sure they can. The white majority was badly racist before 1971, and they appear not to have ever changed. That is because the intergenerational transmission of hate goes on and on, father teaching son, mother teaching daughter, how, why, and whom to hate.
Only White Americans can stop that. Only they can redeem themselves. The question is whether they want to.