Trump’s remark that Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and two other congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “places from which they came” was unambiguously racist.
It’s useful, always, to consult the stylebook. Earlier this year, the Associated Press belatedly revised its entry on race, which now reads, “Do not use racially charged or similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.” The recommendation is a concession to clarity, not to passion or politics. The regulators of news language recognize that to evaluate a person, an event, or a phenomenon as racist is to do just that: to evaluate and observe the situation, and to listen to the facts. Not to breed doubt or inaccuracy where precision and lean language ought to live—e.g., the sky is blue. Or: the President is racist.
Donald Trump’s tweets, this past weekend, were of vintage racist stock. To tell someone to “go back” to the “places from which they came,” as Trump did, clearly addressing four congresswomen of color—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—is stereotypical, lowest-common-denominator racism, embedded in familiar scripts and powered by old tropes. Polls will inform us whether Trump’s open expression of his virulent prejudices will cause his approval ratings to drop, as they did after his “both sides” comments about a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. But whites sympathetic to his nationalist project are not the only American constituency listening. “It is the lot of so many immigrants, children of immigrants, and people of color in this country to wonder whether we can ever truly belong here,” Michael Luo, the editor of newyorker.com, wrote yesterday, recalling his own experience being told to “go back to China.”
On Monday, Trump doubled down on his comments. He accused his targets of the real “racist hatred,” extravagantly wielding the white-nationalist talking points of “reverse” racism. On Tuesday, he added, “Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” In response, even those who recognize the tweets for what they are have got tangled in their rebukes of Trump. Some naïvely emphasized that Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley were actually born in America, and that Omar is a naturalized citizen, as if the President were speaking from a place of misinformation rather than bald incitement. Unnerved, some Republicans have spoken out against Trump, but all except two have avoided calling his comments racist. “I don’t find them racist,” the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said, declaring himself “not concerned.” Senator Susan Collins released a statement saying that the tweets were “way over the line.” Brit Hume, at Fox, tweeted that Trump’s comments were “nativist” and “politically stupid,” but that they didn’t meet the “standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.”
This is the dull semantics of racism. The white conservative twists the discursive field so that he is the sane arbiter of what is or isn’t racist; everyone else is frivolous and excessive, “recklessly” invoking the most sacrilegious offense. This logic rests on the illusion that racism is mythically rare, that “racist” is a dangerous slur rather than a common condition. Trump’s tweets were prompted by the disagreement last week between Nancy Pelosi and the Squad, as the four congresswomen have come to be called, over the Squad’s opposition to a border-spending bill. In an interview with Maureen Dowd, Pelosi spoke dismissively of her younger colleagues, saying, “They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” When Ocasio-Cortez pointed out Pelosi’s “persistent singling out” of the “newly elected women of color” in government, there was an outcry among establishment Democrats and analysts, who rebuked A.O.C. for talking out of turn and for daring to tarnish Pelosi with the implication of prejudice. Ocasio-Cortez is a deliberate speaker, and she did not call Pelosi a racist, but her invocation of race was enough to cause a flurry of defensive rhetoric. Trump seized on the moment of infighting to weaponize Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks: “Whenever confronted, they call their adversaries, including Nancy Pelosi, ‘RACIST,’ ” he tweeted on Sunday.
There persists a wrongheaded and entrenched wisdom among politicians and élite journalists that to call something racist is to violate etiquette. “Trump Fans the Flames of a Racial Fire,” a Times headline about the tweets read on Sunday. It was Charles Blow’s opinion piece, titled “Trump’s Tweets Prove That He Is a Raging Racist,” that spoke objectively. Pelosi’s disapproval of the tactics of the Squad has to do with the preservation of an establishment style, the old guard attempting to rein in the new. But Trump’s attacks test the stubbornness of such mores. House Democrats are preparing a resolution to formally condemn Trump’s tweets; its text begins by referring to “President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress.” This is not only condemnatory but also plainly descriptive. Too much superstition attends the deployment of “racist.” The bar for its just use isn’t very high to clear.