President Donald Trump’s slowness to condemn the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and then subsequent comments where he stated there was blame on both sides, produced outrage—and rightly so. But it wasn’t until after Trump’s news conference that we witnessed people speaking out against his comments specifically. Republican leaders, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) openly condemned his excuse-making for white supremacists and the notion that the protesters and counter-protesters 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 should be obvious that the president of the United States should condemn hate groups, and any show of support or sympathy toward these groups 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% 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 subtle forms of racism or even acknowledging that it could be a factor in areas such as the workplace, higher education, health care, and schooling.
You see a tendency for people, especially politicians, to avoid topics such as discrimination and racism. Now-former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon recently commented, “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.”
His comment reflects the notion that talking about race and racism is such an unpleasant and distracting topic that he will be 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 racial topics altogether. It also may be the covert nature of modern forms of prejudice that makes people reluctant to talk about it. Because these subtle forms of racism are not as obvious, it may be difficult for those who do not experience or understand 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 are not afraid to voice that opinion.
We do, however, have real reasons to be concerned. The president of the United States has a great deal of power, and people do turn to him for leadership. Although some have argued that Trump has failed as a leader in several practical ways, he is still, at the very least, the symbolic leader of our country. Trump’s tepid response to the Charlottesville violence has invigorated white supremacists and spurred additional protests.
But one bright spot that has emerged from this tragedy is that Trump’s words have propelled the topic of explicit and old-fashioned racism into the spotlight like few times before. His actions are forcing some people, especially those in the public arena, to take a stand against racism and bigotry. More importantly, 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.
We need to openly discuss racial issues so we can correct misconceptions and educate others. Racism is bad for everyone—people of color and whites alike. Too many have suffered and even died as a result of racism, Heather Heyer being the latest victim. Openly talking about race issues may not seem like much, but it goes a long way toward improving race relations, and we can thank Trump for that.
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 is also co-editor of the Handbook of Arab American Psychology.