The latest Foxnews poll is a thing of beauty. After finding that 74% of white evangelicals approve of Trump (no surprise there) the poll asked a follow-up question: “why do you approve of the job he is doing?” Look at this:
Most said they approve because of the normal reasons people like any president: the economy is growing, he’s doing a good job, he’s keeping his promises. (That is laugh out loud funny by the way). The pro-life position we’ve heard so much about was cited by 2% of white evangelicals as their reason for approving of his job performance. The margin of error in the poll is bigger than that! Most white evangelicals are not supporting this presidency out of deep pro-life conviction. They like what he is doing in general.
I have an honest and morally serious disagreement with those lonely 2%. Everyone else is just being absurd.
A funny note: the poll also asked people why they disapprove of Trump’s job performance, but the sample size of white evangelicals who disapprove was too small to produce a statistically meaningful result.
Some other white evangelical highlights from the poll:
71% approve of Trump’s handling of immigration. Yeah, zero-tolerance, break up those families, yeah! Sucks to be them! Ha! Get ’em! Losers!
60% have a strongly unfavorable view of Obamacare. Health care is for snowflakes who don’t know how to rely on God.
57% think Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election. Remember, Jesus is truth but all other truths are relative.
In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Adichie discussed her battle with depression:
As a child, she had a kind of natural authority. Many girls wanted to be her friend, and in an effort to win her they would present her with their lunches, and she would eat them. At the same time, she had episodes of depression—the beginnings of a disease that continues to afflict her—though she did not yet have a name for them. “I was a popular child who had tons of friends and did well in school,” she says, “but then I would have moments where I didn’t want to see anybody, didn’t want to talk to anybody, cried for no reason, felt that I was bad and terrible, isolated myself.”….
She dreaded falling into that pit again. She knew that some people thought there was a link between depression and art, that it gave you insight or depth or something, but the idea that someone could write while depressed made no sense to her. “I can’t even read. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. I can’t see my life, I’m blind. I feel myself sinking—that’s the word I use with my family and friends. Well, actually, I don’t talk about it with my family much, as lovely as they are, because they don’t really understand depression. They expect a reason, but I don’t have a reason.”
This rings true. There is no reason. It just is. “I can’t see my life” is especially evocative and apt. That’s exactly how it feels. I admire Adichie’s work and assigned Americanah in one of my classes. It’s nice to know even globally famous writers are human!
You can tell a lot about a person by how they process the racial climate of the consecutive presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. On the right, it is commonly believed that President Obama stoked racial division, and that Donald Trump is a more unifying figure. I was reminded of this Sunday when Rick Santorum said “many, many, many people saw Barack Obama being just that. Doing more to exacerbate racism in this country.”
Why do people believe this? Because they’re colorblind racists. This post is for people who already know this in a general way, but could use some more insight about how this kind of racism works. (If you’re one of the people who experienced Obama’s presidency as divisive and Trump’s as unifying, I’m afraid this post will be very offensive.) I’ll also consider some rhetorical strategies you can use to try to communicate to someone who might be persuaded to discard their racist views.
Ok, first, how does this kind of racism work? Santorum’s comments are a textbook example of colorblind racism. Colorblind racism is distinct from white supremacist racism, in part because the declared goals and self-understanding of the colorblind racist are anti-racist. Colorblind racists often sincerely want everyone to get along and are not conscious of acting against the interests of people of color.
Colorblind racists tend to feel threatened by discussion of racial discrimination. They believe the best way to solve racial problems is to not talk about them. “It’s in the past.” “It was long ago.” Move forward, focus on what we have in common. They believe that though there are certainly bad people here and there who really are racists, there aren’t significant systemic barriers or discrimination holding people back. To the extent that there is a problem with racism in the United States, it involves a small number of bigoted people, and a larger number of people who play the victim, using the accusation of racism as an excuse or a cudgel against political opponents.
Colorblind racists tend to believe that no new laws are needed to rectify racial injustice. They tend to believe that the laws of the United States are just and fairly applied. So when President Obama acknowledged that American policing is discriminatory, colorblind racists experienced his words as more divisive than the underlying problems to which the words refer. Similarly, colorblind racists experienced the NFL players’ protests against police brutality as more offensive than the brutality itself.
Colorblind racists tend to see accusations of racism as tantamount to racism. This is why they often believe white people face more discrimination than black people. White people, after all, seem to be constantly accused of racism. This is a heavy and unfair burden to bear, they believe, especially in a society such as ours where there is so much freedom and opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and grab it.
Colorblind rhetoric often sounds appealing to people because it seems to promote brotherhood and goodwill toward all. “We’re all Americans.” “Let’s be united.” “Content of character.” “We’re all the same under the skin.” Colorblind racism operates by appropriating this rhetoric to protect white advantages. It might seem reasonable and well-intentioned on its face, but it only works when all context around the rhetoric is ignored. When people say “we’re all the same” to argue against a Jim Crow segregation law, they’re using colorblindness for anti-racist ends. When people say “we’re all the same” to silence black people speaking about the reality of racial discrimination they face, they’re using colorblind rhetoric for racist ends.
This rhetorical posture is why you may see, for example, people vocally supporting Trump one day and posting a meme about unity the next day. While colorblind racists provide strong support for racist policy in a practical sense, their self-image is anti-racist. They’re not trying to fool you. They’ve already fooled themselves.
Ok, that’s a little bit about the psychology of colorblind racism. Now how do you engage someone enthralled by these beliefs and, perhaps, win them over? I’m assuming here that these are conversations among people you really have a relationship with. This is unlikely to work with random strangers!
1. Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Softball questions are good. This will give you more understanding of where the person is coming from, and it might even expose something to that person’s own consciousness. Many white people have incoherent racial views and find it difficult to talk about them. Self-aware people might begin to realize this without you pointing it out.
2. Think about your bottom lines. Conversations about race tend to splinter and go in a thousand directions. You meant to defend the humanity of black people in a conversation with your grandfather, and 15 minutes later you’re debating the finer points of the ACORN controversy from 9 years ago. Do you really need your Grandpa to agree with you about ACORN? Always bring the conversation back to your bottom line.
3. Grant points when you can. This is part of keeping the conversation on track. Do you really need them to agree with you that progressive taxation has an important role to play in reducing racial inequality? No, you don’t. Grant them that point, and return to the bottom line: racial discrimination is a real and significant problem in the United States, and we need to address it.
4. Look for empathy connections. This is easier said than done. If we say, “how would you feel if…” it can seem like a confrontational gotcha question. But in more subtle ways, you may be able to defend and promote the humanity and dignity of people of color in ways that resonate with a colorblind racist.
5. That said, don’t use appeals based on pity. You don’t want them to get the impression that charity and pity are what this whole racism conversation is about. Colorblind racists often are already inclined to think of many black people as victims. You want to counteract that impression, not reinforce it. Basic justice is the issue at hand.
6. Appeal to their stated ideals if you can. Many colorblind racists genuinely want to be accepting of all people and are profoundly hurt and threatened by the idea that they may not be. Do not get caught up in complicated discussions about cultural autonomy and the potential downsides of the colorblind ideal. Affirm what is good in the ideal, and try to point out how discrimination is undermining the very values they espouse.
7. Don’t get bogged down in evidentiary claims. This is tricky because isn’t this whole debate about evidence? Yes and no. Some people rapidly change their views in the face of evidence. But most have deep emotional, social, and economic investments in seeing things the way they do. Unfortunately, they will not be won by the weight of evidence. Yes, the evidence is on your side. The colorblind racist will be saying false things. But think about how you can move the discussion forward while offering evidentiary resources in a more useful form. “There’s a great book about that…” “I can send you the link to a study that addresses that question…” You want to be able to get back to your bottom lines while gently suggesting that the point they’ve raised has been thoroughly studied/debunked/explained.
8. Be prepared for the long haul. Most of us just don’t change very fast. In the context of friends or family, you’re not trying to win the discussion. You’re trying to give them something to think about while keeping the door open to future conversations.
Car horns can be useful sometimes. I use them on occasion. They can even enhance safety. But most commonly, they are a device used by bullies who ought to be in anger management class. This is one of the axioms by which I live: if someone is beeping at you, it is possible you’ve done something dangerous; but usually they’re beeping at you because they’re doing something dangerous.
I seem to have encountered a lot of horn honkers lately. There are two especially interesting circumstances that have occurred on more than one recent occasion. One is when a driver behind me would like me to run over a pedestrian in a crosswalk. I have old-fashioned scruples about not doing that. The other is when a driver is upset at me for using a left-turn lane for, you know, turning—when I ought to know that they were in the process of appropriating it for a passing lane. There, too, I’m hopelessly out of step with the exciting possibilities of the post-modern roadway.
Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:
Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.
“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.
In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.
This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:
1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.
In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.
2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.
In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!
3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.
4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexismplayeda role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.
Nearly 70 years ago, in his classic study of southern politics, V.O. Key wrote, “Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.” Key’s explanation for the uniqueness of southern politics was the line of black-belt counties (so named for their soil) stretching through the Deep South and along the Mississippi River. These rich agricultural counties had high black populations because of their central role in the antebellum slave economy.
According to Key, the dominance of these counties in their respective states created a sectional bloc in national affairs, while factionalizing politics within the states themselves. Exerting an influence out of all proportion to their population, white elites in these counties built a uniquely southern brand of politics concerned with their very particular circumstances. As Key wrote, “In these areas a real problem of politics, broadly considered, is the maintenance of control by a white minority.”
Contemporary scholars have built on many of Key’s findings. These counties are definitely unique, and the white voters in them are among the most conservative and racially reactionary in the country. Why is this so?
A new book argues that what we are seeing in this region is the direct legacy of slavery on contemporary political attitudes. I plan to read the whole thing, but for now I am settling for the introduction, which the publisher has made available online. The authors write:
We argue in this book that political attitudes persist over time, making history a key mechanism in determining contemporary political attitudes…We argue that Southern slavery has had a lasting local effect on Southern political attitudes and therefore on regional and national politics. Whites who live in parts of the South that were heavily reliant on slavery and the inexpensive labor that the institution provided…are more conservative today, more cool toward African Americans, and less amenable to policies that many believe could promote black progress. By contrast, whites who live in places without an economic and political tradition rooted in the prevalence of slavery…are, by comparison, more progressive politically and on racial issues. These regional patterns have persisted historically, with attitudes being passed down over time and through generations.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if you oppose reparations for slavery because it was “too long ago” but the influence of slavery on your own political views is actually the reason you oppose reparations? Ha.
The correlation the authors describe has been understood for a long time. It is a powerful clue, but it doesn’t establish cause. How can they demonstrate that slavery and contemporary political attitudes really are linked in a causal way?
I’ll be curious to see how these authors, as political scientists, build a theoretical framework for making this argument. In brief, they contend that the link between slavery and contemporary attitudes has been transmitted by a mixture of institutions (Jim Crow laws for example) and “family socialization and community norms.” Knowing what we do about how sticky political affiliations can be across generations, it would be hard to believe that the political influence of a centuries-long society-defining institution like slavery could dry up in just a century and half. The trick is to try to measure and show that influence in a tangible way.
A lot of people don’t realize that there is an influential white southern political tradition based on opposition to the post-civil war constitution, democracy, and human rights. This is one of the most influential political traditions in American history. We don’t like to think or talk about it as much as the tradition of equality and freedom, but these visions have been running alongside each other throughout our history. It’s still active now. For voters influenced by that white southern political tradition, Trump’s racism and hostility to the rule of law likely make him more appealing, not less.
The conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza is in the news today after President Trump announced he is granting him a pardon for his illegal campaign fundraising activities. Though hard to believe now, a quarter century ago D’Souza was a Very Serious Person, a public intellectual who had his work reviewed by the New York Review of Books and the like. D’Souza makes a brief appearance in my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s. Here’s how I described his influence:
This optimism [about racial progress] was best reflected in the most ambitious popular conservative treatment of racism during the 1990s, Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism. The book celebrated the nation’s progress in eradicating racism and asserted that the primary remaining impediment was black culture. D’Souza concluded his book with a call for repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In colorblind America, it was no longer needed. In this narrative, the battles over civil rights became another marker of American exceptionalism, a monument to the inevitable culmination of American democratic ideals. As colorblindness took hold as the normative framework for understanding race in the United States, it became difficult to conceive of white resistance to the civil rights movement as a serious force that meaningfully contributed to the construction of the colorblind consensus.
I read D’Souza’s book a decade ago. At the time, despite his radicalism (repeal the civil rights act!!) it was possible to disagree with him while assuming he operated in good faith. But in retrospect, the way he discussed black culture in the book was a foretaste of what he would become in his mature years. Now he’s a racist troll serving no useful purpose for conservatism, much less any other principle.
It’s all very strange. D’Souza had mainstream respectability as a smart conservative who wrote ambitious books challenging liberal orthodoxy. Now he’s reduced to hurling twitter insults at, of all people, Rosa Parks! I find that example particularly delicious, because he unwittingly revealed that he doesn’t know anything about who she was or what she actually did.
Does anyone really know what happened to this man?
There is a lot of evidence that white evangelicals are in some ways more selfish and callous toward others than are Americans who do not claim to be Christians. Surveys indicate that white evangelicals are more likely than religiously unaffiliated people to:
believe African Americans do not face a lot of discrimination
In fact, white evangelicals are more likely to believe we face a lot of discrimination than to believe that African Americans do.
In the face of such data, white evangelicals of integrity have to ask themselves whether it would be better for everyone if the number of white evangelicals continues to decline.
Some people might be quick to point out that this data doesn’t tell us much about how white evangelicals behave in their personal lives. They might be very kind and generous to the people around them.
In a way, that’s precisely the point. What is it about white evangelicalism that has made its adherents support racism, hatred, and oppression in the public sphere while acting kindly in our private lives? (We appear to givemore of our money away than religiously unaffiliated people, for example).
There is no excuse for this behavior, but it is possible to understand it. Why do you think white evangelicals are often so hateful and selfish?
In my view there are four big temptations that fatally undermine white evangelicals’ posture toward our fellow human beings. In each temptation, an idea, institution, or thing is valued more highly than people. For Christians, such a devaluation of human beings is practically the very definition of sin. Here are the temptations:
1. Nation is more valuable than people
2. Whiteness is more valuable than people
3. Economic security is more valuable than people
4. Church is more valuable than people
That last one might be surprising but it’s important. I should write about all of these in the near future, but for now I’ll just say this: The through line in all of these temptations is an attenuated, unbiblical sense of public good and public responsibility. When white evangelicals call Jesus our “personal savior” it is more apt than we might realize. In much of white evangelical theology, Jesus has come to save us from private and personal sins—anger, lust, gossip, pride—while the world and its systems are passing away, going to hell in a handbasket.
The idea that he is making all things new gets lost in translation. The kingdom of God, if we even think about it at all, is an otherworldly place to which individuals will go in the future, rather than an expansive, growing force that reorders the here and now. This is exquisitely contradictory, as the black evangelical Bill Pannell has pointed out:
On one hand they want to say that this world is a sinking ship and want to do evangelism to get people off this “sinking ship” before it goes under, and on the other hand they are always voting conservative to maintain their property rights and the status quo. That’s the problem, that’s the contradiction. It is difficult to deal with but it is very real. I think it is a real challenge to the so-called Christian institutions.
The here and now is important enough to make sure we live in nice neighborhoods and send our kids to good schools, but not important enough to make public investments that might make all neighborhoods and schools better. But we’re not hoarding our resources. We’re merely enjoying God’s blessings, don’t you see? If white evangelicals were homeless itinerants calling people to repent, you could at least respect their radicalism. But when we invest in the status quo like we have no eternal hope it’s hard to take us seriously.
It’s interesting to imagine how different American politics would be if there was a significant pro-family faction in the Republican Party. A lot of people are under the illusion that there already is such a thing, but maybe you can understand my skepticism:
The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.
Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.
Under the “zero tolerance” approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children remain in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.
Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a “last option,” according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s preparations.
White evangelicals will no doubt cheer this on. It’s not their families on the line, so who cares?
At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”
There is a profound disconnect when a Trump supporter says “moral relativism” and imagines that people of goodwill can believe he is sincere. So Gerson goes in for the kill:
And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. The Wisconsin Republican complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” — trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.
Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, Ryan can no longer speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.
It is instructive to think about what moral claim Ryan could have reasonably made. Is there anything he could have said that people of sincere Christian belief could take at face value? Is there any moral principle he could have laid claim to without it ringing hollow? I can’t think of one. I believe that Ryan is sincere in his Catholic faith. We’re all pretty good at living with contradiction. But I find it fascinating that Ryan doesn’t feel a profound sense of shame when he talks about morality in a public setting (or private for that matter). This is what supporting Trump does to you. You become a hypocrite simply by telling your kids to be honest and respectful.
My tradition of evangelical Protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.
This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.
Christians who are following Trump (by that I mean they feel a strong sense of support and approval for him) are not following Jesus. To love the one is to hate the other. We shouldn’t shrink back from exposing their sin and calling them to repentance. Christians who say we need to work hard to maintain unity in the church in this divisive era are correct in a limited sense, but risk making a serious category error. Trump followers are not engaging in reasonable political behavior; they are separating themselves from Christianity and working to oppress their fellow Christians. It is hard to stay unified with people who do that.