Greg Steinbrecher

Greg Steinbrecher

Greg Steinbrecher (@GregSteinbreche) is the Lead Social Media Manager for Braver Angels. He’s an actor living in Los Angeles, where in his free time he indulges his interests in history, baseball, jazz, political philosophy and podcasts about all those things and more. 

Why Calling People Racist Doesn’t Help

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You may have heard that lately, President Trump wrote a series of tweets that were, even by his own lofty standards of awful tweets, appalling. To put it in words and a manner that he might understand: they were BAD TWEETS. Here’s the text of all of them put together:

“So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

Thus began the usual kabuki dance that happens every time the star of our real-life political reality show says or does something terrible: Democrats and liberals in the media swiftly and unequivocally condemned Trump’s words, as did—it’s worth noting—many movement conservatives. The next day several prominent elected Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Tim Scott, and Susan Collins, came out with statements denouncing the tweets.

Some, on both the left and right, thought that Republicans were too slow to censure the president. But as always when it comes to such questions of tactical matters, it’s worth asking how one might feel about their own side’s actions if the shoe were on the other foot. How much were you bothered, say, by the throat-clearing recitation of innocuous caveats that occurred before Democratic leadership slapped Rep. Ilhan Omar on the wrist for her anti-Semitic comments?

It’s perfectly acceptable for politicians to pause and take stock of the landscape before opening their mouths and responding to a story—we need more thoughtfulness and clarity in our politics, not less. But in order to reduce polarization, we also need to catch ourselves and see if we’re actually bothered by something, or if we’re just using it to score some cheap political points. Of course we should be bothered by Rep. Omar’s remarks and Trump’s tweets. But should we be bothered by the lag in condemnation time by the other members of their parties? Not so much.

Many were distressed by what Trump wrote, and for good reason. However, I think it’s important to be specific about what, exactly, was so pestilential about them. Which is why I believe it’s equally important to point out that the tweets were not – as has been widely accepted – racist. Brit Hume’s tweet put it well:

“Trump’s “go back” comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactual and politically stupid. But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.”

In general, we as a society are too quick to label something racist; it feels like whenever something with a racial tinge in a less than flattering light comes up, it’s immediately deemed as odious as Bull Connor or Adolf Hitler. Let’s take a silly example. On the last season of The Bachelor (yes, I watch The Bachelor and no one forces me to) Colton Underwood (who was terrible) and the contestants went to Singapore (where Demi and Courtney had their epic fight…I’ll stop, find me on Twitter if you want to talk all things Bachelor,) and while there, ate Singaporean cuisine, such as bullfrog, pig feet, eel, and fish eyes. While they were consuming it, The Bachelor and his ladies acted grossed out by the food.

On the Bachelor Party podcast, which recaps and discusses each episode (sigh, I know) the host Juliet Litman called either their reactions or the show’s presentation of their actions “somewhat racist.” Why? Because they judged, were weirded out by, and lightly mocked an aspect of another culture. Now, the participants, when looked at in the least flattering light and interpreted in the worst possible way, may have been rude, insensitive, ignorant, or all of the above. Or perhaps by amplifying their reactions the show was those things. But were they racist? If the contestants had gone further and said, “Not only is this food weird, but it proves that Singaporean people, and maybe even all Asians, are inherently worse than white people”…well, that would be racist by any reasonable definition of the term.

I hear these sentiments all the times. I was watching a James Bond movie with some friends this past weekend, and when a white character mocked an Asian character’s martial arts moves everyone immediately and instinctually called that racist. But no- something is racist if it presupposes or implies a racial hierarchy of human beings. Most comments dealing with race, even ones that are insensitive or ill-considered, don’t come anywhere near meeting that threshold. If we’re going to depolarize America, it would be very helpful to stop going right to the nuclear option of labeling people racist, sexist, homophobic, and other genuinely evil things. We need to pause and consider whether that person or statement is actually saying a group is inherently inferior, or whether they’re simply criticizing a member of that group, or in some ways ignorant about that group; and then we need to be lexicographically accurate in our designation, so as not to dilute a term like ‘racism’ to the point of meaninglessness. If we’re slower to bestow upon someone a label that, if taken seriously, would get them condemned by most of polite society, our national discourse and our country would be all the better for it.

So were Trump’s comments, as Brit Hume says, “nativist, xenophobic, counterfactual, and politically stupid?” Undoubtedly. But racist? I don’t think it takes anything away from how horrible his tweets were to say that no, they were not racist.

I should note that what I just described is the first definition of racism in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. There is a third, looser, definition: “racial prejudice or discrimination.” By that looser standard, Trump’s tweets were indeed racist. I am of the opinion that because of the seriousness of the charge and our justified revulsion at racism and racists (given our racist history,) we should hold ourselves to the first, stricter, definition, and use it cautiously. There are other, better words that are related to that third definition by not quite synonymous with the first definition of racism: bigoted, stereotyping, prejudiced, etc.

Now I’m going to skip past most of the fallout to the Trump rally where people shouted “Send her back!” when he brought up Rep. Omar. I think two things can be true: one, obviously chants of “Send her back!” are brutally ugly, reprehensible, and un-American. To say the least, they don’t reflect well on anyone who felt it was acceptable to shout such a thing, nor on President Trump who allowed them to shout it.

But I don’t think it’s reasonable to interpret it as a literal request: I don’t think many of those people literally want to send her back, much as I don’t think people literally wanted to “lock up” Hillary Clinton (despite all the chants, there’s no organized movement to see her imprisoned.) Instead, I believe it’s a verbal spasm giving ugly expression to an understandable underlying frustration.

There’s a debate to be had, not over how much legal leeway naturalized citizens should have to criticize their government, but how much gratitude they should be expected to have to the country they chose that let them in. I’m not going to go into the weeds, David French and Charlie Cooke had a superlative back and forth about it on National Review online and I highly recommend you read it. I think it gets at why people are uneasy about someone like Rep. Omar. They’re worried that high-profile people so baldly criticizing America, like her, aren’t doing so in good faith, or aren’t doing so with a proper appreciation and understanding of the underlying principles that this country is founded upon. What they’re doing, instead, is attacking those very principles themselves. And because America as a country is unique in the sense that its inception is more of an idea and a set of principles than anything else, therefore those critics are attacking the root of what makes Americans so American. And they find this particularly galling coming from an asylum seeker, someone America took in, someone America gave the opportunity to grow up in a free country with plenty of opportunity, someone who America elected to a position of a high office wielding incredible influence.

We’re caught in a vicious cycle. Some on the left attack America as a fundamentally corrupt country, and it’s possible to see an implication in their criticisms that therefore unrelenting opposition is in order. See, for example, Beto O’Rourke telling a group of immigrants that America is “founded on white supremacy.” For every reaction there’s another reaction, and people like Trump and his followers go too far in pushing back against those sentiments and those who express them with something like chants of “Send her back!” Which only solidifies the beliefs on the left that America is racist, and amplifies the voices saying America is corrupt. Provoking a response. And around and around we go.

At last month’s Braver Angels convention in St. Louis (which was great, you should totally go to the next one,) I took part in a debate that asked, “Has criticism of America gone too far?” I took the side that it hasn’t, and I stand by my contention. I ended by saying that those who believe in the idea that is the American experiment, and the principles of liberty and equality of opportunity that we’re founded upon and strive to live up to, have to persuasively make their case, and do so better than they are now. Convince people. If we’re upset that people look at America and only see a racist, patriarchal, misogynist empire, steeped in white supremacy and using the tools of capitalism to drain the life out of the many to help the few, we need to persuade the masses that America is instead the great and expansive ideals she’s founded upon: the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that even though America hasn’t always lived up to those ideals, she has always striven to live up to them more, and much good has been done and things have gotten better as we strive to live up to them. And we can still reach these ideals without tearing everything else down.

Chanting “Send Her Back” isn’t making that case. But scoring cheap political points and inaccurately calling people charged names doesn’t help simmer the tensions, either. When people behave abominably—and it’s worth repeating: Trump, Rep. Omar, and the people at Trump’s rally behaved abominably—it’s incumbent on us, if we want to see the country less polarized, to try to peel away the outer layer of what we see, and try to reach a measure of understanding. Even, or especially, when what we see disgusts or terrifies us.

Greg Steinbrecher (@GregSteinbreche) is the Lead Social Media Manager for Braver Angels. He’s an actor living in Los Angeles, where in his free time he indulges his interests in history, baseball, jazz, political philosophy and podcasts about all those things and more.

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3 thoughts on “Why Calling People Racist Doesn’t Help”

  1. Side note: it should be pointed out that, in response to criticism, Omar repudiated and sincerely apologized for her “Benjamins” statement, while, in response to criticism, Trump doubled-down on his call for American citizens and elected representatives, who happen to be women of color, to leave the country.

  2. Michael Harrington

    Good arguments well put. This issue delves into the psychological effects of words and meanings more that factual interpretations. I would suggest that Merriam-Webster’s loose definition is impossible to apply because, absent observable action, it involves gauging the person’s intent and thus seeing into that person’s heart and soul. I don’t think we are really equipped to do that (not even with the mysterious methods of Donald Trump), so the stricter definition must apply or the word racism becomes so general as to lose its effective meaning, as Ms. Omar so plainly demonstrates.

  3. First, I agree that Trump is not a racist. There is much that can be said about his language, but while I believe that it is clearly intended to be provocative to the Left, and to send support to his base, some significant number of whom almost certainly could legitimately be regarded as believers in white supremacy or superiority, the primary purpose seems to be to inflame resentments and antipathy toward people who can be framed as “haters” of this country, whose agenda is to tear down and destroy what “we” have and cherish.
    I am much more disturbed by your framing of Ilhan Omar as a counter example of bigotry on the Left. Any open-minded attempt to read her remarks in context would reveal someone whose concern is for social justice and who wishes to counter the ability of large amounts of money (the Benjamins) to influence decisions and policies in our political process. By the way, being opposed to Israeli policies, particularly in the treatment of Palestinians does not make a person anti-Semitic.
    As for my interpretation of Omar’s stances and policies, people are clearly free to disagree. My objection stems from the “debate” beginning with the cherry-picking of certain statements of hers that are then twisted to condemn her. I would like you to offer her the same courtesy that you show Trump, whose thought seems to go little deeper than his tweets. Rand Paul recently did the same type of distortion of Omar’s op-ed to the New York Times. The USA article puts quotes around Paul’s statement and ‘ ‘ around his characterization, presumably taken from her op-ed, that she said Oh, America is a terrible place, there is no justice here. Only, again she didn’t say that.
    If you want to debate Ilhan Omar’s positions, fair enough, if you actually debate them in the context in which they are made. Beginning with character attacks is not in the spirit of this website as I imagined it.

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