« Scalia & Litigant Autonomy, Part 2 | Main | Hello. My name is Rhett Larson. And I angst over article submissions. »

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why does it matter (redux)?

In December, I wondered why it mattered whether Donald Trump was "a racist," as opposed to just a person who said racist things. That question is back, thanks to questions at last night's Democratic presidential debate. Both Clinton and Sanders were asked whether they consider Trump a racist; both condemned the things he said, while refusing to put a label on him.

But, again, how cares? If someone says racist things, I know not to vote for him for President. Why does it matter whether the label is formally attached to him? And, in particular, why does it matter whether his potential political opponents attach the label to him?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 10, 2016 at 09:25 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


The question made no sense as a question for the Dem candidates unless the he point was to create an innuendo that the Dem candidates could publicly disavow, but have the media echo. BTW the groups to which Trump referred aren't races so the question shouldn't even have been asked.

Posted by: AYY | Mar 10, 2016 12:50:59 PM

I can think of a few reasons. First, whether someone's a racist, i.e., someone who believes that certain minority races are inferior to non-minority races, rather than someone who just has said some racist things at some point, very well might bear on how someone would behave in office. For example, LBJ said all sorts of racist things in private company but almost certainly would not have been such a good civil-rights president had he been a thoroughgoing racist; Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, was really a racist and, arguably for that reason (among others), engaged in a fair amount of racist policymaking. Whether someone subscribes to core racist beliefs, or just occasionally engages in racist stereotyping of the kind pretty endemic to white Americans of all political persuasions (as does Bernie Sanders sometimes, see, e.g., when he said recently that white people don't understand black people because they don't know what it's like to live in "the ghetto"), is pretty important.

To the extent that argument turns on a definitional move that you reject, branding people as racists has a great deal of rhetorical power in contemporary discourse. Being a racist is a disqualifier for just about any public office or public position. Most people don't consider the discursive contributions of people who've been widely identified as racists. David Duke, hypothetically, could endorse Trump for some cogent set of reasons relating to Trump's positions on trade and taxes, and Trump would still have to disavow Duke's endorsement. On the other hand, people who have said racist things, but aren't deemed to be racists, can participate in public discourse and have their views considered on their merits. (Consider, for example, how gladly any of Trump's opponents would accept Trump's endorsement if they get the nomination.) Because calling someone a racist is a really big deal, choosing not to call someone a racist when they might reasonably be characterized that way is also a big deal. If one thinks Trump is a racist, rather than a confused pandering nativist, the failure of Democratic candidates to call Trump a racist could seem like a failure to sufficiently condemn Trump, _even if_ those candidates condemn all the remarks and policies that provide a basis to call Trump a racist.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Mar 10, 2016 12:19:02 PM

Post a comment