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A Readers' Guide To Recognizing Racism's Most Powerful Tactic

Let's take an opportunity to look at racism in its fuller complexity and educate ourselves about the system and why it persists. And to view how Donald Trump is using many of its classic maneuvers and power tactics.
A Readers' Guide To Recognizing Racism's Most Powerful Tactic
Image from: Media Matters

One of the issues Trump raises to return America to his image of “greatness” is racism. He has called Hillary Clinton a racist, accused the Democratic party of racial exploitation, told the black community he is their last, best hope and accused a federal judge of Mexican descent of bias. He has berated a black President and presumed to have power over his actions. Let's take the opportunity to look at racism in its fuller complexity, to educate ourselves about the system and why it persists. And to view how Donald Trump is using many of its classic maneuvers and power tactics.

A mistaken belief held across the nation insists racism is solely about discrimination, bad words—fights over free speech and beliefs in stereotypes. On both sides of politics and the Mississippi, many Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites share this carefully crafted, widely accepted delusion. It flares with each incident. It is almost a permanent misconception. It loops with each headline, but it badly misses the mark: racism is a system. Bigotry, stereotypes, labels, evil names, myths, coded signals are all a part of the system—but the system is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Racism as a system piggy-backs on other systems. It is a parasite of our national psychology. It rides the backs of our justice system. It is deeply embroiled in our politics. Racism—as a system-- determines the size of our comparative median incomes, the likelihood of criminal convictions, the level of school achievement, and the life histories we live, and often, how and when we die. Racism is pervasive, often silent, and difficult to throw off.

What makes racism an adaptable, malleable system so unyielding, so permanent in our history, so wide across our landscape is not race itself, but its most powerful tactic. That tactic always diverts and confuses, clouds, conceals, covers, causes our attention to shift. The tactic bifurcates the claims of racism into two parts.

Sometimes the division is symmetrical. The claim Black Lives Matter is a movement that supports violence against police and encourages lawlessness and riots is a racist claim—it is part of a system of power, presented by people who need to justify their abuse of power—and it is symmetrical—it stands in direct opposition to the real goals and purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sometimes the division is asymmetrical. Florida and Virginia both lowered their passing scores for black and Latino children on state tests in math and reading to account for cultural differences, an asymmetrical use of race disguised as learning differences to fix permanent learning differences by race.

Whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, or by any degree, denial is racism's most important tactic. Because of denial, racism as a system seldom has a direct correlation even when it has a direct impact. Denial is the linchpin of racism, the source of racism's longevity, the force behind its sustainability. Denial is its glue. Its cherished principle. It works because denial is not about race at all—althrough racism uses it—denial is about power and privilege. It is a tactic that deflects challenges and creates social support and acceptance for racism's purpose.

Denial's duplicity pretends to affirm key human values to deny race is the object of its mission. Denial is complex and subtle, often aggressive.

Son of Baldwin offered a powerful insight about how television videos of protests are used to deny the actions of racism being protested by furthering stereotypes and making the protests appear extreme (emphasis mine) :


Then the media plays its part in stoking the flames of slander by using its tools to display the choreographed mayhem on a loop until, in the public consciousness, our marginalization becomes synonymous with terrorism. And the real terrorists remain cloaked in the flow of our blood, which is their sustenance, and the society remains anesthetized in its drug of choice: innocence.

Below are two of four common types of denial, organized with historical examples and examples of how Trump uses them. (The others will be reviewed in part two.)

Denial Of Place

The earliest forms of denial were associated with place. A single place: Africa. Africa, a land of naked heathens, dancing and drumming, with bronze and indigo skins—the place of slavery's birth, an untamed, wild homeland. Africa, the source of the single most important economic treasure in the 18h and 19th centuries—labor. Slave labor. African labor, men and women denied income and freedom, who worked thousands of plantations scattered throughout the New World.

Enslaved labor created enormous wealth. Rice, sugar and cotton were its riches. But labor could not share in its wealth creation because of place. The Supreme Court said as much in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, written by the Chief Justice Roger Taney. He concluded the enslaved could not be citizens because they were from Africa.

The Chief Justice's decision established racism's boundaries of place (emphasis mine):

It will be observed, that the plea applies to that class of persons only whose ancestors were negroes of the African race, and imported into this country, and sold and held as slaves. The only matter in issue before the court, therefore, is, whether the descendants of such slaves, when they shall be emancipated, or who are born of parents who had become free before their birth, are citizens of a State, in the sense in which the word citizen is used in the Constitution of the United States. And this being the only matter in dispute on the pleadings, the court must be understood as speaking in this opinion of that class only, that is, of those persons who are the descendants of Africans who were imported into this country, and sold as slaves.

Place alone disqualified the enslaved for freedom and the value of their work. The notion of Africa, 5,500 to 7,000 miles away from Mississippi and Maryland, from Brasil's Bahia and the Caribbean's St. Kitts was enough to deny the world's two most fundamental rights, freedom and a share of the value their hands and minds produced. The world's largest forced migration and genocide, the movement of 10 to 15 million people was concealed and condensed into a single place, Africa.

Today Trump's racism assigns criminality and fear to place as it denies ethnicity is the problem. It's the place: Mexico is the source of rapists, murderers, and thieves; the Middle East is home to legions of unknown Islamic terrorists. The inner city is a land of violence and poverty. “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African American, Hispanics, are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot,” Trump says. Guess what happens if you try to move?

The ballot box is also a place! Guess what happens if you try to vote? (Wisconsin is currently disobeying a court order by not providing ballots to persons with alternative forms of ID ; North Carolina's restrictions were found to violate the constitution; the only reason to overturn the Voting Rights Act was to advance racism!)

Protest is another place; long recognized are differences in how protests are handled and judged as Son of Baldwin describes. When place is used to deny racism, it seeks to uphold oppression and its advantages of power and wealth. Remember Jesse Jackson's famous axiom during the fight for school integration: “it's not the bus, it's us!”

Place (or being out of place!) is at the center of Trump's call for a return to stop-and-frisk. Place is why he removes protesters and non-protesters of color from his rallies. Place is how he denies his double messaging; appearing to support LGBTQ rights and civil rights in one speech while appearing before groups vehemently opposed LGBTQ rights and voting rights in a different place to ask their support. Place is how he appeared in white communities and uses the black community to signal to these white communities plausible denial of his hardcore racism. Place is how he tried to use a United Methodist church to conceal his racism until the minister called him down for bringing lies and hate to the pulpit against her earlier admonition.
(Think of ways place is used to advance and conceal racism; note its sophistication and add your insights in the comments to build a clear list of the ways denial blends place with race to further racial oppression and racial advantage.

Denial By Psychology

Psychological denial supports and creates acceptance for the most common views of racism, views themselves that deflect from the system behind the stereotypes. Psychological denial is usually accompanied by a discomfort with blacks and other groups or a belief that contact can bring harm or criticism. Psychological denial affects employment, housing, and social interactions. It is the source of double standards. Tiger Woods was the object of a psychological slur about chicken dinners; Oprah got the doors locked to Hermes. Psychological denial is used to keep races divided by installing fear and dread, often reinforced by social pressure.

Milt Romney used it his 2012 campaign, constantly implying Barack Obama lacked an appreciation for American values and traditions and did not have an "American" character. A notion reinforced by his racist-in-chief, the son of Cuban immigrants, John Sununu, an open bigot who has endorsed Trump.

During Romney's run, empty chairs were hung from trees in several states, combining Clint Eastwood's soliloquy at the GOP convention delivered to an empty chair (implying Obama's nothingness/emptiness) with the traditional practice of silencing by lynching, which has resulted in 3400+ known African-American deaths.

Of course, the racial element of this was denied. The symbols of the swinging chairs from trees were left to speak for themselves. They were reminiscent of the lyrics to Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh

Trump's people prefer tee shirts and sucker punches. Another favorite, the newest symbol of white supremacy, is Pepe, the green frog, a staple of the alt-right. All of these are done in the name of free speech and homeland defense. The Southern battle flag is seen with Trump's name emblazoned on it, but this too, we are told, is about states rights and free speech, not hate.

Racists often have black associates or friends, but it's their beliefs and actions that are important not their associations which are only another form of psychological denial.

Lastly, psychological denial is a mainstay of blame and finger pointing. Racists deny their racism by blaming others. They hide their mission by pointing out failures and labeling these failures the result of racism by others.

But racists tied to the system of racism will never offer a path forward, unless it involves racial/ethnic/religious groups coming under their authority and ascendancy--exactly the deal Trump is offering to these communities. He seeks white advantage. He upholds white privilege. He denies black achievement, offers no partnership; only a return to old forms of oppression and control. He denies this by saying others are to blame!

Trump has consistently used the psychology of denial to attack Barack Obama through storytelling and labels, never using facts. In fact, Trump inflates and exaggerates his criticism of the President by using terms often applied to blacks (weak/incompetent/horrible) as he creates stories that fit his slurs!

The psychology of denial, like Trump's stories, is removed from reality. Psychological denial is a presumption: the President is a Muslim because he is a Muslim; he caused the slow response to hurricane Katrina; under Obama jobs are falling--none of which is true! Here denial forms a circle and false claims act as their own proof, making it impossible to refute.

Trump loves this twisted logic. He repeats it and repeats it. He uses denial to normalize his lies and errors, his assertions and stories in "the dark folds of the next second." But denial is always about submission, never uplift. Denial describes false promises that will be left unfulfilled after the power is gone from communities. Look at Flint. That's Donald Trump. During his visit, he congratulated the engineers that provide the poison water and then tried to blame Hillary.

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