If you set aside boiling rage for a moment and look coldly at the progression of recent American politics, you can see where we are heading. Into the abyss.
To a large degree, the most lasting legacy of Martin Luther King, Junior’s leadership of the civil rights movement has not been the actual accomplishment of the movement’s broadest goals—America remains a racially segregated and unequal society—but rather a shift in the nation’s conventional wisdom about what falls within the bounds of acceptable, respectable thought. Within the span of a single generation, outright public racism went from respectable to disreputable.
Here I will pause to note that it should go without saying that the substance of racism and the pursuit of racist policy goals have remained firmly in place. To frame it in the harshest possible way, you could say that the civil rights movement achieved the ceremonial placing of a fig leaf atop the public discourse about race. But even in the harshest light, this sort of shift has had meaning: for several decades now, children have grown up in a country in which the official line, at least, has been one of pro-equality and disapproval of racism, rather than vice versa. This slide of racist thought into official disrepute has shaped the media, and pop culture, and education, and political rhetoric. I make no claim that this change has been as meaningful as it could be, or should be, or, indeed, that it has been pursued less than cynically by the majority of the political and economic establishment of white America. But it exists. It has persisted for longer than many of us have been alive. And it has had, at the very least, an effect on the perception of everyone who has grown up in post-civil rights era America. Racism is still pervasive, but it is not officially condoned.
This evolution in our national tone, I assumed, was a permanent one. The battle was no longer mostly against explicit, legal racism, but rather against implicit racism and racist structures and inequality rooted and racism—all of which would always be denied, because racism itself was no longer considered respectable. The most obvious manifestation of this is the fact that “racist” seems to the one of the last things that white people genuinely object to being called. Even a powerful person who constantly speaks and acts in ways that are racist, and who pursues policies that will inarguably achieve racist ends, will bristle and wail at being branded a racist. It carries the power of a word that was forged in a social justice struggle spanning centuries. Those who explicitly embraced racism were pushed to the fringes; the price of staying in the mainstream was raised by a token amount, to the disavowal of racist ideals even if you in fact operated in a way that furthered oppression.
I’m afraid that even the very thin layer of perceptual progress that seemed to be permanent may be eroding after all. The cycle of white grievance is now on the verge of springing forth in an ugly and shockingly retrograde way. The Republican party, in particular, has spent the decades since Nixon’s “Southern strategy” refining its racist dog whistles. Now it appears ready to toss them all aside. Welfare queens, Willie Horton, the use of MLK quotes about equality as a pretext for opposing affirmative action... all these things are too subtle for the Trump era. We now seem to be close—very close, closer than would have seemed possible just a few years ago—to the day when mainstream Republicans begin simply embracing the “racist” label. By this I mean that they stop denying it and instead argue that it is a justified position. It is not hard to imagine, is it? Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity grow tired of their pro forma evasions and decide to just bask publicly in the comfort of the cloak of white nationalism; Trump himself, neither savvy enough to concoct plausible denials nor with much incentive to care any more, grabs hold of the “racist” flag and waves it around, hugs it, treats it as red meat to toss to his base, just another transgression against political correctness; and the more right-wing portion of the Republican establishment, from Congress to think tanks to Southern statehouses, takes a long, satisfied breath, glances around to make sure they have the blessing of Fox News, and at last stops pretending they ever really cared about racism in the first place. If Trump’s political ascendance has proven anything, it is that a large portion of white America has just been waiting for cultural permission to lean into the racism that has always been there. They have eagerly walked the path from “Mexican rapists” to banning Muslims to “Build the Wall” to “Send her back!” And here we are: tiptoeing right on the far edge of just saying “fuck it.” If they do decide to say “fuck it,” things will get very dark. Darker, even, than they are now. Because millions of people will no longer feel obligated to even act as if they care.
We’re all racist. This is America. Did you grow up in America? You are racist. You grew up in a racist country, and we all spend our lives marinating in America’s legacy of racism, soaking it in by osmosis. It is not a moral judgment. It’s a fact. Some people accept this, and work to overcome and change it. Other people deny it, and let things carry on as they are. And still others wallow in it, drink it in, and allow it to poison their minds forever. Collectively, we in America have been fighting this battle with ourselves for 400 years. We make a little progress, and then we fall back. The sort of backsliding we are facing right now is the dangerous kind. When the “racist” label loses its sting—when it is picked up as a point of pride—we will move into a qualitatively different time. A more ominous time. It is easy to mock this all as hand-wringing over window dressing, given the fact that racism itself has been persisting just fine for all these years. But the public expectation that even racists would act as if they thought racism was bad had value: it was a sign that they thought that the weight of public opinion was on the other side. If that disappears, the poison that so many people have feeding on in private will become the main course. And there will be nothing else for anyone to eat.