What would you call someone who blasted Haiti as a “shithole,” complained about immigrants from Africa, and wondered why the United States couldn’t accept more immigrants from a European country like Norway?
What about someone who mocked Nigerians as living in “huts?” Or defended white supremacists after they terrorized a city in a “protest” that ended with the killing of a counter-demonstrator? What if he or she described black neighborhoods as essentially fit for animals, portrayed Muslim Americans as fundamentally untrustworthy, and criticized Mexico for sending “rapists”? What if, for nearly five years, that person devoted time and attention to “proving” the first black president of the United States was an illegitimate usurper hiding his true African background from the public?
What would you call this person? At the very least, you would call him or her a “racist,” one with a documented history of bias and contempt toward nonwhites.
This person, obviously, is President Donald Trump. And President Trump is a racist. It was clear on Thursday, when he made his remarks about Haiti, and it was clear last month, when he made his comments about Nigeria. It was clear when he went on his “birther” crusade against Barack Obama. It’s been clear for as long as he’s been in the public eye, from when he was investigated by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination in the 1970s to when he demanded execution for five black and Latino teenagers who had been accused, falsely, of attacking and a raping a white woman in New York City in the 1980s.
The evidence for Trump’s racism is so abundant and explicit that the claim shouldn’t even be controversial. And yet, in the wake of the president’s recent comments, our most prominent news outlets are still hedging their bets. The New York Times called Trump’s remarks “the latest example of his penchant for racially tinged remarks denigrating immigrants.” The Washington Post, which broke the story, called the comments part of his “long-standing tendency to make racially charged remarks.” For the Wall Street Journal, the comments were merely “vulgar.”
This hesitation is not hard to understand. Our society is largely indifferent to racial inequality but is highly sensitive to accusations of racism. Labeling anything racist—or accusing anyone of racism—is fraught enough to spark a backlash, especially when it falls outside common archetypes for racism: the violent neo-Nazi, corrupt Southern sheriff, or torch-bearing member of the Ku Klux Klan. Not only does Trump fall outside of the popular image of a racist, but he’s a partisan figure, backed by millions of people. Even if it fits the facts, frankly labeling the president a racist is a risky move, one that might alienate the people you’re trying to reach, including other lawmakers and partisan political figures.
Beyond this, the attitudes and actions that constitute racism are highly contested, especially among white Americans most sensitive to the accusation. And when racism is acknowledged, it often comes sans actors and agency. Something racist may have happened, but no one is responsible. It’s racism without racists.
Donald Trump is a racist, and the evidence shows it. But it’s politically incorrect to say so. When ESPN analyst Jemele Hill criticized the president as a “white supremacist” on Twitter, she was met with a wave of opprobrium, including a statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who called it “one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.” Trump demanded an apology, and the network allegedly tried to take her off the air.
Major news outlets may be slow to label Trump’s racism as such, but the president’s allies seem to both acknowledge the racism and see it as a political asset. “Staffers inside the White House aren’t that worried about Trump’s ‘shithole’ remark,” reported CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Twitter, “with some predicting it will actually resonate with his base, not alienate it, much like his attacks on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem did.”
Donald Trump came onto the political scene with a racist conspiracy theory. He ran a racist campaign. As president, he continues to say racist things. As a simple point of fact, we should be able to say—without hesitation—that Donald Trump is a racist.