Erstwhile businessman Donald J. Trump has taken the political world by storm, besting a crowded field that included 16 other GOP presidential aspirants, thanks in part to his unvarnished bigotry. The groups the presumptive GOP nominee has insulted—in no particular order—include Latinos, African Americans, members of the LGBT community, women, poor folk, and the disabled. Indeed, it’s easier to identify the one group Trump has yet to subject to ridicule—white men—than it is to add up the many groups he has insulted during his run to the GOP nomination.
Yet as a black man myself—one who has both experienced and studied bigotry—I have come to a difficult conclusion: Trump is advancing the national conversation about race in ways that may actually be good for the United States. Before you decide that I have taken leave of my senses, allow me to explain. The plain fact is that Trump’s racism is out in the open for all to see. This punctures the self-deceptive narrative that now defines racial discrimination in America, one that permits whites to explicitly deny the existence of racism while implicitly accepting and perpetuating it through the use of racialized code words. Trump’s campaign and eventual nomination present a “teachable moment,” an unprecedented opportunity for Americans to re-examine race and racism in the contemporary United States.
It’s not a stretch to say that Trump’s candidacy could even do more to advance racial understanding than the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president. For all the talk that Obama’s election might usher in a post-racial society, the evidence suggests that race relations actually became more rancorous after his election, not less. For instance, Obama’s occupancy of the White House has increased antipathy toward blacks on the part of some whites who believe blacks have been slacking. Their reasoning: If a black man can become president, racism must no longer be a problem, if it ever were one.
Trump’s clear bigotry, however, makes it impossible for whites to deny the existence of racism in America. After all, the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party isn’t relying on coded language as a means to communicate his racial sentiments. He’s come right out and called Mexican immigrants rapists. This should make the majority of whites think twice before denying the persistence of racism in America. Many whites do not realize the depth of continuing racism. Most believe America to be a fair, even just place when it comes to race. Indeed, they don’t even realize that they harbor racist sentiments, albeit unconsciously.
Trump’s rise, however, compels whites to honestly confront the persistence of racism as never before. His success clashes with many white Americans’ vision of the United States as a fair and just place. For social psychologists, this is called cognitive dissonance. This theory contends that people who harbor conflicting sets of beliefs generally try to reconcile them so as to eliminate internal emotional conflict. Otherwise, psychological discomfort ensues. If this is correct, it remains possible that at least for some whites, Trump’s campaign will force them to see America for what it really is: a country rife with racism. Once they take the full measure of the racism that remains, however, they will begin the process of bringing their behavior into closer alignment with their beliefs about the American ideals to which they cling: freedom and equality.
For most of America’s history, the putative subordinate status of blacks was rarely, if ever, publicly debated. From the Founding Fathers’ signing of the Declaration of Independence to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln a little less than 100 years later, the “inferiority” of blacks was something whites simply took for granted. This “old-fashioned” racism, as it came to be known in academic circles, prevailed among many whites clear through to the civil-rights era of the early 1960s. Whites, especially in the South, considered blacks “naturally” inferior, and wanted to remain free of blacks socially. Whites didn’t want blacks living in close proximity, and they certainly didn’t want them dating their daughters. In short, discrimination facilitated by the adoption of the Jim Crow laws that codified segregation.
With the civil-rights laws that made segregation illegal, and the death of Jim Crow in the South, this old-fashioned racism gave way to a “new racism” built not on laws but on racial stereotypes. This allowed whites to justify the persistence of continuing racial oppression on the grounds that blacks are lazy, for example. This type of racism posits that blacks have plenty of equal opportunity; they just need to take advantage of it as other Americans do. Certain code words often accompanied this new racism. In the beginning, the term “equal opportunity” was often paired with such code words and phrases as “law and order” and “welfare queen.”
More recently, racist appeals have invoked “real Americans,” or veiled criticisms of people who fail to adhere to the “American way” of hard work and individualism. The implication is that people of color refuse to live by these “cherished” American values, while whites do. The upshot has been a gap between theory and fact, enabling whites to support equality in principle, while rejecting policies that ensure its realization in practice.
When Obama appeared on the political scene, many thought his candidacy and presidency would heal the racial divide. In fact, it made things worse. Some whites believed that with Obama in the White House, blacks could no longer claim the path to equality was blocked. Among other whites, Obama’s historic win sparked anger and resentment. The fact that a black man is the commander-in-chief of the military, head of government, and head of state, was too much for many whites.
On the political front, his election also helped congressional Republicans. The GOP was on the ropes after the 2008 presidential election. But by 2014, the GOP regained both the House and Senate, powered largely by the rise of the Tea Party. There’s substantial evidence, though conservatives would deny it, that the insurgent right was fueled largely by the anxiety, anger—and yes, racism—directed toward the nation’s first black president.
Conservatives’ resentment and anger hasn’t been confined to the president, but has enveloped all blacks by association. Witness the recent spate of white-on-black violence. The murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland, among others, illustrate the continuing devaluation of black lives vis-à-vis white ones as it pertains to law enforcement, and institutional racism. Likewise, the murders of Trayvon Martin and the nine black church members at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina underscore the devaluation of black lives among private citizens. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct result of such violence. While less dire in the short term because lives weren’t lost, but of equal import in terms of life chances, black students on college campuses have begun protesting institutional discrimination in many forms. This includes the complicity of some universities in slavery, the white fraternity members singing racist songs, and the failure of school administrators to respond to racial incidents on campus.
Whether racism is directed at blacks in general or, as with the Tea Party, is aimed largely at the president, the fact remains that many whites deny that racism per se is behind their attitudes toward blacks. In the case of generalized racism, whites may claim that blacks are in violation of that cherished American value: the Protestant work ethic. The problem is “their” cultural shortcomings, not “my” racism. Where the president is concerned, Tea Party sympathizers deny the charge of racism on the grounds that their antipathy isn’t about race, it’s really about the president’s policies: He’s a socialist.
Presidential campaigns have a way of placing race on the national agenda. In 1964, Democratic standard-bearer Lyndon B. Johnson positioned his party squarely behind civil rights, while his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, was sympathetic to Southern sentiments on race. Four years later, Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee, promised to look after the interests of the nation’s “silent majority.” This was a racially coded appeal to middle-class whites eager to restore “law and order” in the wake of the urban crises of the late 1960s. In 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush used dog-whistle politics to great effect against Michael Dukakis. Bush ran a campaign ad that invoked Willie Horton, a black convict who raped a white woman after participating in a prison-release program while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. Though Obama tried to avoid it, race played a key role in both of his campaigns. Across the racial divide, his physical appearance made the issue impossible to ignore.
In 2016, Trump’s none-too-subtle bigotry has shocked many Americans, pushing his approval ratings deep into negative territory. But if we look hard enough, Trump’s candidacy contains a silver lining: Many whites will come to realize the continuing racial inequality in America. Given the press from which Trump and his supporters benefit, this racism is hard to ignore. If decades of social science research is correct, the collision between what many whites believe America to be, and what it actually is—at least as far as race and racism are concerned—may wind up pushing whites toward greater racial tolerance, especially if they consider themselves part of the American community.
In short, counter-intuitive as it may seem, Trump’s candidacy may be a good thing for the country. Ultimately, it may go a long way toward healing the racial divisions that have crippled this nation from its founding. With the recognition of the depth of racism in America should come support for policies designed to at least mitigate, if not eliminate, the effects of discrimination. This is a net good. The discerning reader, however, will note that this analysis refers only to Trump’s candidacy—not to a Trump presidency. The former, we’ll likely weather. The latter would likely mean the end of America as we know it. But that’s a story for another day.