It began on July 14 when President Donald Trump told four Democratic congresswomen of color — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He doubled down on this attack during a press conference on the 15th and in another series of tweets the following day. He renewed the attacks once more during a campaign rally on July 17. He insisted, repeatedly, that given their criticism of his politics and policy, they must hate America. (The crowd even shouted “Send her back!” in response to his comments about Omar.)
On July 27, Trump called Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) a “brutal bully” who was failing to “clean up” Baltimore, his “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” of a district (as the president put it). Later that evening, Trump conjured up a Reconstruction-era trope of black politicians and proclaimed without evidence that Cummings was a corrupt congressman who “has done nothing but milk Baltimore dry.” Two days later, Trump went after civil rights leader Al Sharpton, referring to him as “a con man” and “troublemaker” who allegedly “hates whites and cops.”
Simmering underneath the public outrage over the president’s attacks has been a conversation among journalists, political observers and pundits who are mulling over whether calling Trump a “racist” is accurate, how this will play as a political strategy for the next presidential election and whether anything the president has said can truly speak to his heart and mind.
It’s an exhausting, pointless conversation that serves no true function, and time is wasted when spent explaining why telling people of color to “go back” whence they came or baselessly claiming that black public figures are corrupt is deeply racist. But the conversation has provoked me to revisit author Toni Morrison’s 1975 keynote address at Portland State University where she outlined the responsibility of artists and scholars to tell the truth, the true purpose of racism and what underlines the motivations of racists.
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
This quote, arguably the best known from the keynote, has been getting a bit of play online. It’s poignant and speaks to the frustration many black folks and people of color more broadly share about this week’s news cycle. Yet the full context of this speech makes it even more relevant to what’s currently unfolding before us — both Trump’s language, the surrounding debate and people’s reactions to it all — and lays more plain the utter failure of journalism in this moment.
Morrison begins her keynote by reading an inventory list from ”The Historical Statistics of the United States from Colonial Times to 1957.” She makes extensive note of the dehumanizing language used to describe enslaved Africans and how they were listed as “imports and exports,” devoid of all humanity and treated as monolithically as rice. It isn’t the responsibility of historical statistics to provide such information, she maintains. That responsibility lies with artists and scholars, who also have the duty of unpacking how race itself has never been the real issue. This is, and has always been, about using distraction as a tool to create a dynamic that maintains white supremacy and the access white people have to power and profit.
While it’s safe to assume that Morrison, in her reference to artists, wasn’t referring to journalists — she has noted many times in a number of speeches, including this one, the role the media plays in upholding white supremacist power structures — it’s still vital that we heed her words.
And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim. Where racism exists as an idea, it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business.
Trump, with his bombastic statements, does this very well. His most cacophonous rants elicit visceral reactions from our predominantly white media landscape. Pearls are clutched. Audible gasps are made. Then time is wasted wringing our hands over surface-level remarks that do not matter nearly as much as the racist policies touted by his administration. Too much energy is spent debating whether journalists stray from being “dispassionate,” if it’s too opinionated to call Trump’s remarks, and the president himself, “racist.” Euphemisms are used to carefully dodge calling blatant racism what it is. The black and brown journalists who have been speaking out against Trump and his racism since 2015 — journalists who are counted among racism’s victims — are often left exhausted from trying to contextualize the rants. They are also routinely chastised for being “biased” and not sharing the broader media’s hesitation when they do.
This is intentional. While we twiddle our thumbs over semantics — which, for the record, do often matter but are being distorted in this context due to the fact that Trump is a racist saying racist things — brown children are being separated from their parents at the border. He has denied immigrants of color the right to seek asylum. He has imposed a travel ban on immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. He signed orders to advance the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, which could cause environmental damage to the Native American lands through which they run. He has pursued options to further militarize the police. More recently, Trump issued an executive order asking that the Census Bureau gather citizenship data based on administrative records and saying that “some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter-eligible population.” This was after dropping an attempt to add a citizenship question to the Census.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. Toni Morrison
It is on us to expose the fact that Trump has aggressively pursued policies that disenfranchise people of color. It’s on us to reveal their faces and names, to show the world that this isn’t just talk ― this is about policy which has real effects on the lives of real people. Trump is, to quote Morrison, one of the “old, old men … running institutions, governments, homes all over the world who need to believe in their racism and need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them.”
We may not be novelists or artists in the traditional sense, but we are transcribers of history. One of the fundamentals of our institution should be to tell the truth, to reveal the facts. When journalists maintain that calling out racism explicitly is “editorializing” or rely on euphemisms, we are shoving aside integrity to continue a longstanding, industry-wide legacy of coddling white supremacists and their supporters.
It is not our duty as journalists to get distracted and argue over what to call his racism, but to expose its roots. The first step in that is calling it what it is and doing so honestly.