Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Stick or Stone?

Sticks and stones, according to the saying, may break one's bones, but words will never hurt one. It's a convenient aphorism that's often deployed when children complain that some or another child has called them a name. But it's rarely, I suspect, an effective one. And this, I believe, is mainly because for all that adults are willing to tell children that words don't really matter, they'd never really believed it themselves.

President Trump, when he said that certain unnamed United States Representatives should go back to their "home countries," kicked off yet another coffeepot conflagration. And a lot of discussion has been ignited over whether or not the President is racist. While I understand that it's something that a lot of people want to talk about, I think the focus on whether or not the term "racist" applies, either to the President directly or to his comments draws attention in the wrong directions.

When I was in high school, many of my classmates had no qualms about calling me "nigger" to my face. The common understanding of the reason for this was that those classmates were unreconstructed racists. But as I grew older, I started to realize that perhaps it had nothing to do with racism at all, rather, it was the fact that I was put out by being called nigger that prompted many of the people around me who used it. Or, to be more accurate, it was the expectation that I would be put out by being called nigger. In other words, a certain set of my classmates would call me nigger because they understood that this was an effective was to get under a Black person's skin.

And I suspect that President Trump, who reminds me of some of my more unpleasant classmates in other ways as well, is working under this same logic. When he Tweeted: "Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough," I suspect that this had nothing to do with their ethnic backgrounds. Rather, he was calling them out as "un-American" in a way that was easily at hand, and would resonate with the people who supported him. While the first is a guess on my part, based on past experience, “when the crowd at Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday trained their eyes on Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, chanting ‘Send her back!’ in a play on Trump’s own words from a few days before,” the latter was proven.

Given this, does the label of "racist" make any particular difference? I understand those who feel that spades must be identified as spades, but the battle lines here were drawn some time ago, and the rhetoric has had its effect. The President's supporters have, once again, their proof that the President resents who they resent. Whether the President's resentment is real or feigned, in support of them or for reasons of the President's own, is beside the point at this stage. Representative Omar (and the other members of "The Squad") represents something threatening and un-Americans to them, whether that be the encroachment of non-Europeans/non-Christians or the abandonment of America's peculiar implementation of Capitalism, and the President's Tweets showed that he understood that. Race was tangential, not central, to that. Likewise, the American Right is coming to expect the charge of racism whenever it clashes with a non-White public figure, so much so that the term is losing any force that it may have had. Not that such force was universally useful in any event. Like any large collection of people, the American Right is diverse enough that it can be expected to have constituencies that will respond in a number of different ways to any given stimulus. There were always going to be people for whom the term "racist" simply wasn't important. I expect that President Trump is one such. He's unlikely to be motivated to put more work into his messaging, or be less direct in showing his followers that he understands their concerns, simply because Democrats call him on it.

Eventually I learned to disinvest in what my classmates would say about me. Not because it offered me any control over the situation; I'd come to understand that when it came to the verbal slights that were thrown in my direction, there was no control to be had. Instead, there was a certain peace. Not being caught up in something that I couldn't influence allowed me to shift my attention to more important things. To be sure, maybe for the people who find the charge of racism important, it is the highest item on their list of priorities. But if it's not, that energy may be better spent.

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