We have a problem in this country. No, it’s not Muslims. It is the rhetoric of ethnic and racial difference in our public discourse, and progressives must do more to counteract it.
On September 20, at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, an audience member posed a question to the Republican presidential candidate in which he stated, “We got a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American … But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question. When can we get rid of them?” Trump, in a now infamous response, failed to correct the man and instead nodded in apparent agreement, stating, “We will be looking into a lot of different things.” Just three days later, in an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson stated that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
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These are just two examples of an ongoing trend in which Republican presidential candidates insist that Latinos, Asians, Muslims and even our current Black president are not only “different” from Americans, but are unfit for leadership or full incorporation into US society. The danger of this extreme, xenophobic rhetoric is that it sets the bounds of public discourse beyond the point of reconciliation. It prevents us from imagining a world where perceived differences can be traversed, and it perpetuates the marginalization of racialized groups.
We have a collective obligation to change the rhetorical grounds on which political battles are fought. Progressives in particular need to do a better job of responding to and countering xenophobic rhetoric. Democratic politicians have egged the Republicans on, hoping that right-wing extremism will push more moderate voters into their waiting arms. For example, back in 2012, when asked about the prospect of a Sarah Palin nomination, David Plouffe, President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, said, “Something tells me we won’t get that lucky.” That a top Democratic operative would call a Palin nomination “lucky” suggests that Democrats are not interested in toning down the hateful rhetoric, but are positively giddy for it to continue.
Of course, some will note that offenders like Trump and Carson have been held accountable for their remarks. Just one day after Trump’s New Hampshire rally, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she was “appalled” at the lack of response. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has publicly called on Carson to withdraw his candidacy.
However, it is not enough to denounce the most extreme violations. We must also expose the xenophobic assumptions behind even the more moderate statements of our elected officials. Take, for example, the now widely circulated video from news media company ATTN, which compares Donald Trump’s response with one John McCain provided in a similar context during his presidential candidacy, when a white audience member said that Barack Obama was an Arab. Trump, as we know, declined to respond. McCain corrected the woman, but he did so by stating, “No. No ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, citizen.” Instead of celebrating McCain’s more humane response as a way to undercut Trump in the short term, we should push ourselves to be better in the long term by exposing the hidden assumption embedded in his response – namely, that Arabs are not “decent” family men or citizens.
From there we can start to build something better, something decent, in place of our current rhetoric. What would this mean? It would mean restructuring our sense of history and realizing that the ideals of US citizenship developed at the expense of excluding entire swaths of humanity. It would mean questioning the words we use to politicize racial and ethnic difference. And, most importantly, it would mean building a language, a new public discourse, in which perceived differences can be reimagined.
Sociologists Adia Harvey Wingfield and Meghan A. Burke argue that one way to move forward is to shift from a colorblind rhetoric to a color-conscious one. Scholars have argued that colorblindness – while claiming not to see racial difference – in fact perpetuates racial marginalization by diverting our attention away from existing forms of discrimination. Color-consciousness, by contrast, addresses race head-on and examines the institutions and behaviors that place individuals into a racial hierarchy. A color-conscious discourse would ask, for example, what characteristics are associated with whiteness and what the effects of such associations are. If, for instance, citizenship and property are associated with whiteness, what does this mean for people of color who also claim these rights? From this vantage point, we can begin to see how “American values” like individualism and freedom are laced with racial meanings and apply only to certain people. We can start to assign new meanings to these hugely consequential words and over time transform our public discourse into something that we can be proud of or at least listen to. If we do not – if we do nothing – then we can look forward to more Trumps and Carsons from here on out. What’s more: We will deserve them.