Stop Shunning White Racists From Mainstream Politics

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Werner Enterprises Hangar in Omaha, Nebrask
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Werner Enterprises Hangar in Omaha, Nebraska, US May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom

Several days ago, many progressives were on the verge of becoming outraged that White Nationalist William Johnson was on the list of Trump delegates to the California Republican Party State Convention. Before the hardcore criticism fully ramped up, the Trump campaign attributed his inclusion to a "clerical error", and he appears to have resigned, probably to avoid embarrassing Trump.

Too bad. The cause of improved racial discourse would be better served if people like Johnson were considered acceptable fringe members of the Trump coalition. Continuing to publicly shun them only makes it harder for our nation to talk honestly about our on-going racial predicament and about the phenomenon of Donald Trump.

We have to face the fact that Trump's appeal to whites (the overwhelming supportive demographic of his campaign at this point), is significantly influenced by something that social psychologists call racial threat. Yes, racial threat is a thing. In fact, it is just one of many varietals of very specific types of unconscious racial bias that scientists have discovered affect both whites and people of color (POCs) in different ways and with different impacts. Stereotype threat is another, racial anxiety is another still, and there are other varietals well established in the literature. Racial threat is the fear of diminished racial dominance by one's own group.

The open presence of white nationalists in the Trump coalition would be very uncomfortable, but it could be potentially very valuable because it can help us bring the feeling of racial threat out in the open. Avowed white racists speak openly about feelings that many have and won't admit and that still others have, but are not even consciously aware of. If journalists do their jobs, the presence of these folks will mean that leaders and the rank file will be confronted with questions like: Given how America actually is changing, how legitimate are white nationalists' fears of diminished racial influence? What is the real difference between traditional conservatives who reluctantly support Trump, hardcore Trumpites, and white nationalist Trump supporters on key diversity related issues like immigration, Muslims, transgender people, or affirmative action? Is the difference one of tone, underlying emotion, or something else? What is that difference, exactly? It will be useful to see what happens when conservative commentators, political leaders, average Joe supporters, and The Donald himself are pressed for answers to such questions.

Continuing the practice of excluding unapologetic hateful bigots like Johnson from mainstream political discourse makes it much easier to stay in collective denial about the fact that racially based tribalism is a big part -- although clearly not the only part -- of Trump's appeal to whites. There is overwhelming evidence that much of Trump's core support is measurably animated by racial threat. (If you want a few sources of evidence of the importance of racial resentments within Trumpism, check here, here, and here). Unfortunately, our collective understanding about how prejudice and racism function is stuck in the decades-old images of Klansmen in robes, Bull Connor, Archie Bunker, and the like. As long as racial resentments are thought of as only activating hard core "racists" who deserved to be shunned, right-leaning commentators, conservative leaders, and the rank and file can't honestly discuss what is happening within a great many of us.

Racial threat, like other forms of unconscious racial bias, needs to be thought of as a set of feelings that majority of people have to one degree or another and that can get activated at different times. Instead of trying to stamp out feelings of racial threat, we should try to collectively work through such feelings, which means publicly owning up to the reality that tens of millions of us are affected -- sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously -- by inter-group bias, racial threat, and a deep-seated tribalism causing people to more strongly embrace others who they see as their "own group." (Of course, the impact of how this very human tendency plays out on different groups varies tremendously, but that is another conversation).

For white progressives, shifting the conversation forward means looking at conscious and unconscious bias not as something they have never had or are cured from, but rather a wellspring of emotions they are working on and are still subject to. Certainly there is good evidence that liberal whites are subject to varieties of implicit bias just as conservative whites are, though often to a lesser extent. (Two references about unconscious bias among liberals are here and here.)

As a black person, I know that there is some room for POCs to do some honest owning up too residual feelings of tribalism too. You don't have to look too far to find otherwise progressive black folks who sometimes resentfully see the increasing Latino immigrant population as "other people" who are taking "our opportunities." You can also see some of this residual tribalism in the disquiet that many black folks have to the gentrification that is affecting areas like Harlem, North Portland, East Austin, Washington DC, or countless other places. Remember, black folks have only had partial control over most cities and neighborhoods they dominate for a few decades; whites have enjoyed full control over America for centuries. Instead of pointing to white folks' nativism in a morally accusing way when it comes out, POCs can productively and empathetically shift the conversation by owning up the tribalism we sometimes feel and invite Trump supporters and others to do the same. Such honest dialogue is what a truly productive "national conversation" would include.

Certainly, there is no moral or practical equivalence between white nationalists advocating for continued white oppression of minorities and black folks worrying that a yoga studio is going to squeeze out Mama Pearl's Diner and Pie Shop. But as America changes, we are have to going to more honestly own up to the way that all of us are subject to feeling uncomfortable when it appears that "people like us" are no longer as dominant over what we consider to be "our home." Doing this will may require breaking some conventions about what we are willing to admit to ourselves and to others. Expanding the definition of what voices are allowed to sit at the table will make this more possible. Continuing to shun those who have more extreme views makes it harder, not easier, for the rest of us to do the remaining work we need to do.

A video version of this blog is below.