Originally posted in The Washington Post
Omarosa Manigault-Newman — who once declared that “every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump — has evolved from mentee to frenemy to antagonist during her nonstop media blitz, promoting her new post-White House tell-all, during which she’s touted the existence of a recording of Trump using the “n-word.” It’s all sent the White House scrambling, with the president tweeting Monday that “I don’t have that word in my vocabulary, and never have,” and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters Tuesday that she “can’t guarantee” Americans will never hear audio of Trump using the slur.
It doesn’t matter.
Trump is a racist. And that doesn’t hinge on whether he uttered one particular epithet, no matter how ugly it is. It’s about the totality of his presidency, and after only 18 months in office you can see the roots of his racial animus throughout his policy initiatives whether you hear it on tape or not.
Over the course of his career, well before he took office, Trump’s antipathy toward people of color has been plainly evident. In the ’70s, his real estate company was the subject of a federal investigation that found “Trump employees had secretly marked the applications” of minority apartment rental applicants with codes such as “‘C’ for ‘colored.’” After black and Latino teenagers were charged with sexually assaulting a white woman in Central Park, he took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty, but never backtracked or apologized when the teenagers’ convictions were overturned. He championed birtherism, and wouldn’t disavow the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya until the end of his 2016 presidential campaign. As president, he’s singled out African American athletes for criticism, whether it’s ranting, “get that son of a bitch off the field,” in reference to professional football players silently protesting police brutality or tweeting that:
Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2018
Referring to African American Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) as a “low IQ person” is now a routine bit at his political rallies. He was quoted referring to Haiti, El Salvador and various African nations as “shithole” countries. He announced his campaign in 2015 by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Later that year, he called for the United States to implement a “total and complete” Muslim ban.
After taking office, he hired xenophobes such as Stephen Miller — an architect of the ban, whose hostility toward immigrants is so stark, and hypocritical, that his uncle excoriated him this week in an essay for Politico Magazine, writing of Miller and Trump that “they repeat the insults and false accusations of earlier generations against these refugees to make them seem less than human.”
I could go on. The point is that Trump’s view of nonwhites is out in the open. And as Slate’s Christina Cauterucci notes, there’s every reason “to believe that an n-word tape wouldn’t torpedo Trump’s presidency,” because there’s little indication his supporters “will turn against him because he used a racial slur.” If “C” for “colored,” “rapists” and “shithole didn’t do it, why would the n-word? Trump’s words and deeds over time have demonstrated his racism — it doesn’t hinge on being outed, Paula Deen-style, by a tape of him using that word. Indeed, racism hardly ever does.
I’m not saying it would be ok for Trump to use any variation of the n-word — in jest, in anger, singing along to the lyrics of a song, with or without the hard “R.” But the feverish speculation about whether he ever used the term wrongly implies that a verdict on his racist character turns on its use. Not only is there ample evidence of his racism already, but what matters more about Trump isn’t his disgusting attitudes, it’s the positions he’s taken and the policy choices he’s made that negatively impact communities of color: In his first year as president, Trump evolved from mere interpersonal racist to racist enabler when he proclaimed there were “very fine people, on both sides” when white supremacists and anti-racist protesters converged in Charlottesville last year. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who, three decades ago, was denied a federal judgeship by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee over concerns that he was a racist, was installed by Trump as attorney general.
Since assuming that role, Sessions has worked to undermine consent decrees meant to restrain racially abusive police departments and explicitly articulated the administration’s intent to use family separation to deter immigration. The Department of Education, under Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has “begun dismissing hundreds of civil rights complaints,” supposedly in the name of efficiency. Trump hired Omarosa as a liaison to black constituent groups based on their reality-TV relationship and, according to him, her past willingness to say “GREAT things” about him, despite almost universal criticism of her appointment and subsequent work by African American Republicans and Democrats.
Being a racist, which is to believe in a fixed racial hierarchy and then have the power to act upon that belief in commerce, government or social spaces is not now, and never has been, about one word or one slip of the tongue. It is about the ability of those in power to use public and private resources to enforce a racial hierarchy, whether that means having black people arrested for just sitting in Starbucks, refusing to hire and promote qualified black job applicants, or staffing a presidential administration with people who tolerate or encourage white nationalists. Trump’s statements and his approach to governance show that he believes in a set racial hierarchy, and the maybe-existence of an Omarosa-hyped tape doesn’t change that. So far, and as far as I know, no one’s produced audio of white nationalist participants in Sunday’s Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington using the n-word. Presumably, by the logic of some Trump defenders, that would mean there’s no proof they’re racist, either.
If American public discourse on race continues to revolve around a game of “gotcha,” with sentiments and smoking guns, divorced from an acknowledgment of how racists use their power, we won’t make any progress, during this administration or any other.