White Racism in the White House

Does Trump’s racist language help or hinder efforts to expose racist policies?

Has the racism underlying Trump’s candidacy and presidency ever been in doubt? He rehearsed racist stereotypes about Mexican immigrants during the Republican primaries, and then surrounded himself with advisors who helped him run on a white nationalist platform. Once in office, he launched a commission widely seen as a veiled attempt at minority voter suppression and appointed an attorney general whose record on race previously disqualified him for a position on the federal judiciary. When Trump planned to visit the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum last December, the NAACP urged him to skip the ceremony in light of his abhorrent record on civil rights.

There may be no American president since the days of Jim Crow who has done more to foster the ideals of white supremacy. One need only look at Trump’s record to draw that conclusion. But our national discourse on this topic often gets simplified to that singular question: Is he a “racist”?

Trump launched another media firestorm surrounding this question when negotiating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation with senators. Trump reportedly disparaged Haiti and African countries, “demanding to know at a White House Meeting why he should accept immigrants from ‘shithole countries’ rather than from places like Norway.” Typically, the obsessive focus placed on racist utterances deflects attention from issues of systemic and institutional racism. But, in placing a visibly racist tint on Trump’s immigration stance, did his remarks do more to draw attention to his administration’s racist policies in this case?

As long as the discourse doesn’t get bogged down in that singular question of whether or not he is a bigot, there is an opportunity to leverage the focus on his remarks to unmask the collective racism undergirding his policies.

Building upon Jane Hill’s (2008) work on the everyday language of white racism, I have examined a common discursive routine that underlies much of our talk about race and racism in US society: the hunting for racists language game (Hodges 2015, 2016a, 2016b). I borrow the metaphor of “hunting for racists” from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2013) who uses the phrase to describe how the common approach to race relations involves “the careful separation of good and bad, tolerant and intolerant Americans.” I adopt the notion of a language game from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) to capture how a word takes on different meanings depending upon the activity in which it is embedded. Within the hunting for racists language game, the concept of racism narrows to simply mean individual bigotry or personal prejudice. Racism comes to be located solely in the minds of individuals who are positioned as societal outliers. These moves support the premise that racism is a thing of the past and elide from view the systemic and institutional racism that continues to structure US society.

Interestingly, the hunting for racists language game “minimizes racism” (Bonilla-Silva 2013), while ostensibly engaging in a type of anti-racist discourse that attempts to identify “racists.” However, by reducing racism to individual bigotry, the discourse shifts focus onto “individual psychological dispositions” (Bonilla-Silva 2013) or “individual beliefs and psychological states” (Hill 2008), and away from viewing racism as a system of power that requires everyday actions and institutionalized policies to remain in place.

In the case of Trump’s disparaging words about Haiti and African nations, it is easy to lose sight of the larger issues as everyone attempts to figure out whether he is psychologically stable and truly possesses the heart of a bigot. Or maybe not.

Talk about racism that merely focuses on Archie Bunker-type bigots can obscure systemic issues. CBS Television PD-PRE1978

If there is something positive to be gleaned from his offensive words on this occasion, it is that they forced his supporters and critics alike to grapple with the racist implications of what it means to allow immigrants from Norway while seeking to deny immigrants from Haiti and African countries. Yes, reactions focused intensely on his “vulgar comments,” the label for the remarks used by media outlets like National Public Radio and the New York Times. But at the same time, we also saw how those words connected to his demand “to know whether Haitian immigrants could be left out of any deal” on DACA and to the racially-based immigration policy that Trump sought more generally. In other words, the obviously racist language, in this case, may have helped bring greater attention to his white supremacist policies.

Although the white supremacy implicit in those policies has been evident from the start, the racist underpinnings of the policies can be easily masked in statements like the one made by White House spokesperson Raj Shah in the wake of the incident. “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” he said. Anodyne comments like these conveniently allow Trump allies (no matter how reluctant) to hide behind the veil of plausible deniability as they enable the racist system enacted and perpetuated by Trump administration stances and policies.

When the racism appears in visibly “vulgar” remarks, it forces reluctant Trump supporters to either begin to consider the policy implications or reach for vexed excuses. Tragically, Trump’s presidency seems to be breeding more of the latter, along with a greater acceptance of overt racism in many forms. But, if there is any silver lining to Trump’s racist diatribes, it may be in the opportunities they provide to expose the entrenched racism that undergirds his policies. That is, as long as the discourse doesn’t get bogged down in that singular question of whether or not he is a bigot, there is an opportunity to leverage the focus on his remarks to unmask the way “everyone in his administration…is participating in systemic racism,” as William J. Barber II, a member of the NAACP’s national board, told the Washington Post. “We’ve got to get beyond the antics and address the policy.” Perhaps Trump’s own words can help us do that.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality, and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2018. “White Racism in the White House.” Anthropology News website, February 14, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.768

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