Donald Trump is racist and sexist. There, I said it.
Now, he’ll probably sue me.
But Trump isn’t the only problem. The bigger issue is that people respond positively to his racism and sexism. His “Bad Hombres” and “Nasty Women” statements were especially troubling because for some voters, this attack rhetoric is a reason to vote for him. Many who see his lack of a “political correctness” filter (or any filter) as a positive attribute likely do not even recognize the racism and sexism inherent in his rhetoric because they are historically conditioned to accept it.
Although support for Trump, especially among women, is waning, the fact that so many people continue to support him forces historians to grapple with our culture and our country’s past. Trump’s support is a product of American culture, and as any historian can tell you, culture is a product of history. The fact that Trump’s birtherism, racially coded language, xenophobic attacks, and bragging about sexual assault are not disqualifying has shown historians how little American culture has progressed over the past 150 years. Indeed, Trump is reinforcing long-held and firmly established cultural norms.
American historians, especially scholars of Reconstruction, know that American society does not always progress forward. Each revolution has its counter-revolution, and Trump is part of a counter-revolution against the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, or as Trump calls them, political correctness.
This election has shown that America still carries the baggage of its past sins. We remain the product of a society in which citizens were taught that whipping, branding, and the ownership of other people was not merely acceptable, but good. There remain strands within our culture that run continuously from the violence of slavery through murders by the Klan during Reconstruction, to lynching during the Jim Crow era, and then onward to Bull Connor’s use of fire hoses and dogs. These strands of culture continue to today, surrounding us in unseen ways that create an unsafe and unequal world. That history and culture of violence helps explain the racially disproportionate numbers of death sentences given to black men, claims that police officers feared yet another unarmed African-American driver and so were justified in shooting him, and finally, calls by Trump for his supporters to hit protesters.
Along the way, one thing has remained constant: many white Americans have explicitly or implicitly accepted violence as an appropriate response to black people demanding rights or equality, to people of color who are a threat to the status quo.
In the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the way that many African Americans understand the world in which they live: a world where black lives are not valued as much as those of their white neighbors, and worse, a society in which an innocent black life can be taken at a moment’s notice. BLM protesters argue the nation’s social institutions still see violence against the black body as the most appropriate way to control African-American men and women. The backlash against BLM by both Trump supporters and others has shown that indeed, much of society still agrees that violence and the threat of violence are the appropriate responses for protest.
Recent death threats against black children kneeling at a football game indicate that for some violence is still seen as an appropriate response for any people of color who stir the pot. But there are more subtle forms of racism than overt violence. Implicit bias remains a problem not only for police officers but also for educators, employers, health care workers, and neighbors. Trump’s campaign, starting with his part in the racist birther controversy, has brought much of that racism to the surface. In so doing, he has re-legitimized an old racist discourse that is vile and abhorrent.
Some of Trump’s less deplorable supporters see things differently than I do because they nostalgically long for a mythic past that either never existed or that was only greater for some Americans. The problematic racial and gendered implications inherent in such selective nostalgia are easier to overlook if we confine ourselves to limited definitions of racism and sexism that only condemn their most explicit forms.
But racism isn’t always just about the hateful, deplorable beliefs held by Klan members. Racism also remains entrenched in our culture, our society, and even our own minds, often without being recognized. Race does not change a person’s intrinsic worth, intelligence, or humanity, but it does very much change the world in which they live. One’s race changes the opportunities available and the dangers faced on a daily basis. It is often easy to accept superficially that someone else’s life should be valued regardless of race, but it is much harder to understand that society does not function to make that a reality. It is even harder to accept that we, too, are a product of that culture and that our own implicit biases have been shaped by these insidious elements of society.
The vast number of politicians and public figures who have criticized BLM protesters as being racist demonstrates how institutionalized racism is often hidden to white observers. Even the common misunderstanding of the movement’s name shows a lack of knowledge about how history has shaped our society. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was not chosen because protesters did not believe all lives matter. Indeed, the opposite is true. The protesters believe all lives should matter the same, but that our society, police, courts, and even our citizenry have not valued the lives of people of color as much as they do the lives of others. That is why to say “Black Lives Matter” is actually to say “all lives [should] matter” the same.
Calling for colorblindness is not the same as opposing racism. For starters, implicit biases ensure that no one is actually “colorblind” to race. Even were it possible to “not see race,” ignoring race would still be problematic, as it would require us to overlook the systemic inequality built into our established institutions over centuries. Redlining, hiring discrimination, and school districting are just three examples of how African Americans fail to receive equal opportunities in America due to historical inequalities that transcend generations.
Similar strands of inequality and historical discrimination can be found regarding how women are treated differently than men in our culture. The subtler unequal treatment of Clinton has largely been ignored because more prominent examples of sexism keep coming from Trump. That Trump’s misogynistic and offensive bragging about grabbing women by their vaginas was met not by universal condemnation but by patriarchal waffling should hardly surprise any historian of American history. Yet, many Americans who struggle to understand how institutionalized sexism work still wish to deny gender has anything to do with anti-Clinton sentiment.
Until we acknowledge as a society that racism and sexism remain complex issues, they will always remain problems. Ending racism and sexism isn’t as easy as simply not shooting black people and hiring regardless of gender, though both might be good starting points.
In many ways, this election is breaking new ground. It’s forcing Americans to question what we thought we knew about our character while breaking the conventional wisdom of most political scientists. Hopefully, it won’t break the nation any further, as we still have enough problems from our past that need to be addressed.
Adam H. Domby is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. He is also a former congressional staffer. This post and two previous ones on Trump’s military policy and his campaign strategy presented just a few of the ways that history informs this election. A fourth post on why gendered attacks on Hillary Clinton backfire will appear next week. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.