The team at FiveThirtyEight regularly post transcripts of chats among their writers. The most recent one was about President Trump’s first year in office, and what they did and didn’t find suprising about it.
Some of the writers expressed surprise at Trump’s explicit cozying up to white supremacists in 2017. Senior writer Perry Bacon, Jr. says, “I was also surprised by the racial stuff, which he said during the campaign but I assumed he did not really mean.”
Politics editor Micah Cohen adds, “I guess it comes down to whether you thought Trump’s race-baiting during the campaign was political calculation or genuine. We have to conclude it’s genuine now, right?”
To his credit, editor in chief Nate Silver replies, “That’s probably what we should have concluded before also.”
I heard similar talk about Trump’s remarks on race during his campaign. A lot of people assumed he didn’t really mean what he said. And it’s entirely possible that those remarks don’t represent his personal beliefs, and he’s just using white supremacists for some unknown further political goal.
I say none of that matters. If you’re making nice with people who openly profess a despicable ideology, you deserve to be associated with its negative aspects, too.
Before I go any further, I should probably clarify what I mean when I say “race-baiting.” Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as follows:
The incitement or exploitation of racial hatred, prejudice, or tension, usually (esp. in later use) for political gain.
In some circles you hear the term co-opted by speakers on the right to mean anybody who points out the racial inequality in a situation. That’s definitely not what I’m talking about.
One of the most famous examples of race-baiting comes from a previous presidential campaign. In his first campaign for President in 1976, Ronald Reagan talked about a “welfare queen” from Chicago who had forged multiple identities with several spouses and claiming many more children than she actually had, all for the purpose of cheating the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It turns out this was based on a real person who was a notorious criminal, but Reagan’s point wasn’t that one criminal was abusing the system.
Reagan wanted people to think there was widespread abuse of the system by unmarried black mothers. He claimed as much after becoming President when he advocated cutting funding for food stamps, saying “there’s much more than anyone realizes.” He also exaggerated the numbers over time. The actual person who inspired the “welfare queen” story was believed to have been using at least 27 names. Reagan originally gave the number as 80, later increasing it to 123. If you think everybody who benefits from welfare is a lazy cheat, it’s a lot easier to argue that we shouldn’t have those programs.
By the way, the actual “welfare queen” was white according to official records, although the details of her ethnic background are unclear. Another fun fact: the largest percentage of people on welfare? You guessed it – they’re white.
Race-baiting relies on coded language and plays on stereotypes. It’s not so overt as shouting racial slurs and burning crosses in someone’s front yard. The latter is generally regarded as something you don’t do in polite society, at least for now. This leads some people to conclude incorrectly that racism is no longer a problem in this country.
But if the events of the last 12–18 months have taught us nothing else, it’s that there’s a link between this race-baiting and more overt racist behavior. So if we want things to change, we have to start treating the two the same way. We should be as horrified when someone talks derisively about “those people” as we should be when someone uses an outright racial slur.
Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” It’s time to apply this principle to racist rhetoric, even when it’s subtle. Maybe especially then.
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