President Donald Trump’s slowness to condemn the Charlottesville violence and subsequent comments that there was “blame on both sides” produced outrage, and rightly so. Republican leaders such as Sens. Jeff Flake, Todd Young and Orrin Hatch condemned his excuse-making for white supremacists and the idea that the protesters and counterprotesters were morally equivalent. The fact that U.S. senators are commenting shows that people in power across political lines are actually talking about racism. That is a good thing.
Much of people’s horror regarding Trump’s words comes from the notion that it’s obvious the president should condemn hate groups, and any show of support or sympathy is unacceptable.
Often, modern forms of racism, prejudice and discrimination are covert, hidden or implicit. It is not politically correct to openly communicate racist notions. Much of the discrimination that occurs is not explicit but rather subtle. For example, studies have shown that simply changing the name from a typically white-sounding name to a black-sounding name on otherwise identical résumés results in a 50 percent decrease in call-back interviews. In fact, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that subtle forms of discrimination exist and persist. However, people are uncomfortable talking about it or even acknowledging that racism could be a factor in areas such as the workplace, higher education, health care and schooling.
There is a tendency for people, especially politicians, to avoid topics such as discrimination and racism. Steve Bannon, who stepped down Friday as White House chief strategist, recently said, “The longer they [Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Bannon’s comment suggests that talking about race and racism is such an unpleasant topic that he would have been able to achieve his political aims by not focusing on or acknowledging it.
Discomfort with racial topics partially stems from the notion that talking about race and racism is politically incorrect. People are so afraid of being called racist or saying something insensitive that they avoid the topic altogether. The covert nature of modern forms of prejudice may also make people reluctant to talk about it. Because these subtle forms of racism are not as obvious, it may be difficult for those who have not experienced or understood discrimination to acknowledge that it exists.
On the other hand, most Americans are comfortable condemning old-fashioned or overt forms of racism. For example, many Americans believe that neo-Nazis and other white supremacists are repugnant, and they aren’t afraid to voice that opinion.
We do, however, have real reasons to be concerned. The president has a great deal of power, and people turn to him for leadership. Although some have argued that Trump has failed as a leader in several practical ways, at the very least he is still the symbolic leader of our country. Trump’s tepid response to the Charlottesville violence has invigorated white supremacists and spurred additional protests.
One bright spot has emerged from this tragedy. Trump’s words have propelled the topic of explicit and old-fashioned racism into the spotlight. His actions are forcing some people, especially those in the public arena, to take a stand against racism and bigotry. More important, race and racism are actually being talked about, and people are more open to voicing their opinions. If we don’t talk about racism, we can’t begin to fix it.
Germine Awad is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and is an affiliate of the department of African and African Diaspora studies. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. Twitter: @Dr_GigiAwad