It seems like every time the New York Times takes a step towards covering the racism at the heart of the modern Republican Party correctly, it steps on its shoelaces and falls headfirst into a pile of shit.
Today, the Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote what should have been a reasonably good piece examining why Republicans who have loudly condemned Rep. Steve King for wondering what’s so bad about white supremacy haven’t condemned Donald Trump for his racism. This is a good point. (You can read a much better article about this point at the Atlantic by Adam Serwer.) Stolberg’s piece notes that “Republicans seem happy to have found an opportunity to condemn racism without attacking the president,” which is a useful and interesting way to look at the situation—a thought that arguably deserves more space and interrogation than this short piece offered.
But the piece falls down in the classic Times way we know and love: failing to accurately describe Trump’s racism as racism. The article says Republicans are “used to agonizing over how to handle the president’s offensive comments and racially tinged remarks.” “Racially tinged” remarks? Remarks tinged with racism, like a lemon tart with just a hint of thyme? Remarks like, to pick any old example, the very first speech he gave as a candidate:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
That isn’t a tinge of racism. It’s 100 percent pure, unrefined, raw racism. And pure racism is the animating force behind his presidency. As the Times itself notes, in 2017 Trump referred to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville where a woman was killed as featuring “very fine people on both sides.” Is that substantially different from Steve King wondering when “white nationalism” became a bad thing? It isn’t, of course; it’s remarkably similar. But the Times clearly more feels comfortable condemning Steve King’s “racist behavior” while relegating Trump to the “racially tinged” pile.
The problem of describing racism this way isn’t restricted to the Times. Last August, the AP wrote that Trump “flirts with racially tinged rhetoric.” The Washington Post wrote Republicans were “stoking racial animosity” and deploying “racial attacks” in the midterms. Not racist attacks—just “racial attacks,” which are somehow distinct from racist attacks. Just last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out a reporter from the conservative Washington Examiner for describing Steve King’s remarks as “racially tinged.”
The Times article also includes this completely insane point, ostensibly from Republican sources but without any rebuttal or context:
But some Republicans say they cannot be the word police, and note that Democrats were in no rush to condemn Representative Rashida Tlaib, a freshman from Michigan, after she used a vulgarity to call for the impeachment of the president. Others insisted that the president’s comments have not been as offensive as those of Mr. King’s.
Some actually did condemn Tlaib’s language, including Rep. Lacy Clay, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and Sen. Doug Jones, though many others focused more on her calling for impeachment than saying m*therfucker. But putting that aside: Are you kidding me? Using a naughty swear word is not the same as weaponizing and defending racism, and even if Republicans were making that argument to Stolberg, it is bizarre to leave it in unchallenged, as if it doesn’t warrant rebutting. You do not have to reproduce the obviously absurd, completely disingenuous arguments made by people who are trying to trick you into changing the terms of the debate without challenging them.
Donald Trump is racist. Steve King is racist. The modern Republican Party is racist. Even if you won’t go that far, you can and must describe Donald Trump as having made racist statements—not “racially tinged” or “racially charged” or racially insensitive or racially offensive. It’s misleading your readers to do anything else.
As Lawrence B. Glickman wrote for the Boston Review last year, phrases like “racially tinged” are “the very same language of indirection that was invented by right ideologues to make it difficult to speak accurately of racial oppression.” Speaking accurately about racial oppression should be our primary concern when writing about Republicans’ racism—unless what you’re worried about isn’t correctly describing the situation, but hurting the feelings of white people who can’t bear a world in which racism must still be discussed, confronted, and dismantled.