On Thursday night, during the presidential debate, President Trump repeated his claim that “I am the least racist person in the room.” While it was an especially outrageous claim to make when the moderator was a woman of color, it also contradicts a long litany of Trump remarks and actions that are racist by almost any measure. However, today I want to point out something I’ve yet to hear the Biden campaign or media commentators highlight.
The least racist is STILL racist.
Trump could have said, “I am not racist.” While we might dispute that claim as well, it would be more consistent with his argument that racism is not systemic in the United States. Ironically, whether Trump realizes it or not, by arguing he is “the least racist person in the room,” he is also suggesting everyone in the room is more racist than him. He is making a progressive argument – that racism permeates our society and everyone is racist to some extent.
That Trump claimed to be “the least racist person in the room” reveals as much about our society as it does about the president. No presidential candidate would every argue they “beat their wife less than anyone in the room” and think that noteworthy – unless, of course, wife beating was so common in a society that hitting your wife occasionally was considered tolerant. Sadly, in the United States, where racism is so common, a presidential candidate can argue “he is less racist” than others and think that noble.
Or consider this. What if Biden has argued, in response to Trump’s claim that Biden was corrupt that “I am the least corrupt of the two of us.” Can you imagine how the media would have responded to such a gaffe? Fox News would have proclaimed, “Biden Admits To Being Corrupt.” And rightly so. Yet Trump repeatedly says, “I am less racist than others” and no one sees this for what it is – an admission of racism.
Unfortunately, Trump’s claim that he is “the least racist” is at the core of systemic racism in America. As long as white Americans can identify others as more racist than themselves, they can deny or ignore their own complicity in systemic racism. They can define racist behavior as something other than their own behavior.
Like Trump, most white people argue white supremacy, white privilege and systemic racism are either non-existent or vastly exaggerated. Even in the face of countless studies demonstrating huge disparities between the status, wealth, opportunity and treatment of white people and people of color, many white people turn a blind eye. Even when they consistently express racist sentiments, share racist Facebook memes and say patently racist things, they insist they are not racist. Unless someone is wearing KKK robes and burning a cross, most white Americans are unlikely to identify them as racist. White Americans have a very high tolerance for racism.
The word “tolerance” contains the answer to that question. Tolerance has two distinct definitions. The first is “the capacity to endure continued subjection to something, especially a drug, transplant, antigen, or environmental conditions, without adverse reaction.” In this definition of tolerance, it is something we develop over time when subjected to a certain substance or environment. For example, we develop a tolerance for a certain drug and need higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect.
This seems especially applicable to racism in the United States. White people have been immersed in racism for so long that we’ve developed an inability to see its impacts and effects unless the examples are blatant. Kneel on a black man’s neck until he suffocates, and many white people will see something ugly, but – even then – many will not see the underlying racism. Unless the police officer was screaming, “I’m going to kill you, n*****r!” they suggest the situation was “anything, but” racism. Indeed, many white people blame the liberal press and Black Lives Matter for making this death about race.
This type of tolerance for racism is largely unconscious. We’re unaware of our high tolerance for racism because it developed slowly and perniciously. While this doesn’t excuse it, it can be remedied. Helping the white person see racism can lower their tolerance for it. Unfortunately, for many white people, their tolerance of racism is complicated by the other definition of tolerance. The second definition of tolerance is “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”
While white tolerance of racism begins as something unconscious, it usually becomes something willful. At some point in our lives, we are challenged about racist opinions and behavior and we decide to tolerate that opinion and behavior in ourselves and others. In response to such challenges, we do everything in our power to defend our tolerance. In this, white people are more like the alcoholic than the person with a high drug tolerance.
Challenging the racist and the alcoholic evoke similar responses. With an alcoholic, though they know the impact and damage done by alcohol in our society, they excuse their personal behavior as “innocent.” A drink calms them down, helps them think or relieves their stress. All the alcoholic’s efforts and arguments are designed to keep them from having the change their behavior. The person challenging their drinking is the intolerant one.
For the racist, the arguments are similar. They ignore the negative impacts of racism on our society. They excuse their behavior as innocent. They argue that there is no need for them to change their behavior, that the person challenging them is the “true racist.” They do all of this for the very same reason the alcoholic does – they don’t want to give up the “benefits” of their behavior.
White Americans tolerate racism because we see it as beneficial to us.
Until this changes, racism will not end in the United States.
This is why the cancel culture is vital to addressing racism and why conservatives have recently railed against it. It is not because they oppose cancel culture. McCarthyism was governmentally sanctioned, conservative cancel culture. Conservatives were happy to cancel Colin Kaepernick when he knelt during the national anthem. What scares conservatives is a culture that no longer accepts someone being “the least racist in the room.” They are frightened of a United States where claiming a little racism is no more acceptable than claiming to be a little corrupt, or an occasional wife beater.
It is time for us to cancel the racism we’ve tolerated for so long. A cancel culture about racism would demand any person exhibiting racist behavior pays a societal cost – they would lose their job, lose their social status and lose influence. They would be ostracized by society. Companies with racist policies would be boycotted. They would see their stocks fall and their profits shrink.
This is not liberals and black people being petty and vindictive. This is the necessary device for convincing more and more racist white Americans that the costs of racism exceed the benefits, for dismantling a system that tolerates racism. The Civil Rights movement challenged legally sanctioned racism. Today, we must challenge the underlying tolerance that allows systemic racism to continue to operate within legal parameters.
Simply put, we can no longer tolerate America’s high tolerance for racism.