The R word, fifteen years on

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo.

Of course, the same was true in the US. But after two and a half years of an openly racist Trump Presidency in the US, the taboo seems finally to be open to challenge. Opinion writers and individual Democratic politicians have been calling out Trump’s racism for some time, but news reports have stuck with lame euphemisms like “racially charged”, or saying that “critics have called it racist”

In the wake of the House resolution condemning Trump latest racist tweets, the ground may have shifted, at least a little. Quite a few news organizations have used the R-word, in their own voice, to describe Trump’s “go back to where you came from” tweets, and others have tiptoed towards the line.

Most notably. CNN political reports are now referring to Trump’s “racist jabs” in matter-of-fact terms, noting that Trump sees them as politically advantageous and discussing the implications for the 2020 campaign. (Hat tip: Daniel Quiggin). 

There’s still quite a few steps to go before the taboo is ended. Even moving from “Trump’s racist tweets” to “Trump’s racism” will take a fair bit of courage. And so far only CNN has used the word routinely. The NY Times hasn’t even got past “widely seen as racist.” . (For that matter, it’s still calling Trump’s lies “falsehoods” to avoid feeding ” the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides.”

This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric. It’s difficult to do any kind of political analysis clearly if one of the main political tendencies can’t be named. Trump’s re-election hopes depend to a large extent on motivating racist Republicans to vote and on peeling off the remaining racists from the Democratic Party. Try to make this obvious point without using the R word and you end up with obfuscation or worse, such as the use of”working class” as code for racism.  

61 thoughts on “The R word, fifteen years on

  1. I suppose there are important differences between an individual uttering a statement that is racist and an individual being a racist in the sense of supporting a regime or a grouping that is racist in terms of its policy objectives. And there is a difference between an individual uttering a statement that is racist and an individual who holds public office making a statement that is racist and it being not an isolated verbal accident.

    It seems to me it is rather difficult to classify an individual as ‘racist’ on the basis of having used a word that is considered to be racist by others, who say twenty years ago would have used the same word, while living in a society that is tolerant toward just about every ethnic group they came in contact with.

  2. The “go back where you came from line” quote is the specific racist remark you called out. I just don’t feel that it is racist. Its more about nationalism and immigration than race. It bothers me that its being called racist.

    I know I’m not explaining myself clearly… Let me put it another way thats closer to home.. How can we convince Australians that more immigration is a good thing regardless of “where it came from”?

  3. DuncanE: I assume you are not from the USA. Around here, “Go back where you came from” is absolutely a racist taunt, which has been applied to a succession of immigrant waves for over 150 years. So much so that the official US Government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explicitly calls it out as an example of racist bullying if it’s used in the workplace.

    A good way to verify that the phrase is not referring to policy is to check how many times Trump or his people have told, say, Bernie Sanders to “go back where he came from”.

    Personally, I mostly avoid using “racist” to describe people, and limit it to describing actions. This avoids the pointless arguments about whether so-and-so can possibly be racist when he has a couple black friends, since that’s irrelevant to whether a given action (where ‘action’ includes speech) is racist. However, there are cases where, in response to the question “Is this person racist”, it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.

  4. “The taboo lives on, obviously”

    Ok let me put it another way.

    What if we call Trump a racist. Then what?

    Realistically Trump is only saying these things to pander to his base of millions of voters.

    I’m more interested in how we change the mindset of those millions of “racists” than just labelling one person?

    The same applies in Australia with the likes of Pauline Hanson.

  5. I suspect it is because a number of different topics get mixed up with each other under the “go back from where you came” trope. In Australia, the discomfit that people experience when faced with somebody from a different ethnic and cultural background, is further spurred by other more progressive and superficiously acceptable motivations: the green: Australia is full; the Unionist: they take our jobs and push down wages; the urban Labor party member: they take all the good school places.

    It is good to break out from the taboo and call out these cover stories for what they are

  6. @DuncanE We start by dropping scare quotes and euphemisms. Let’s accept that millions of people in Australia, and in other countries, are racists, and that Trump and Hanson rely on their votes. Then we need work out what to do about that.

    For example, can we isolate the hard-core racists (still in the millions, I would estimate) from those who are racially prejudiced, but might recoil from the worst implications of “Send her Back”? I used to think we could, but now I’m less sure.

  7. I agree with Kevin Boyce. It’s better to label actions and institutions racist when they clearly are. Labeling individuals is a fraught process except in flagrant cases and/or for public leaders and public commentators who need to be held to greater account. There is the issue of implicit bias in all this. Studies show most people have some implicit bias and it varies in degree. Basically good people can be guided away from a part of their implicit bias when they are dealt with tactfully and constructively. Going in boots and all and labeling a lot of people with all or nothing thinking can be counter productive.

    Science shows that the hatred process has a neurological basis as do more positive love and nurturing feelings. In turn this means the hatred process has an evolutionary origin. However, the engendering and hijacking of hatred for its targeting at specific groups is not at all evolutionarily determined. That part is cultural. Changing culture takes a long time, often generations in fact. Look at the history of institutionalized slavery (measured in the 1,000s of years) and modern institutionalized racism (measured in the 100s of years).

  8. The dog-whistle politics of the so-called conservative parties in the formation and actions of neo-nazi racist groups is also a big topic regarding the AFD in Germany. For more than a year, the heads of the parliamentary party tried to use the accusation of racist or neo-nazi affiliations as a categorical defence (a bit like if you mention H then you lost the argument.)

    Some reactions by the public:
    My favourite: In a small town in former East Germany groups that are racist in all but name had announced a public event. The inhabitants reacted by buying up all beer in town – drying them out so to speak. The planned event fizzed out quickly.
    The police learned. In an even smaller settlement, alcohol can be bought only at a petrol station. On the day of the planned racist groups event, the police occupied the petrol station. It was a no-event.

    (These events often involve groups coming from all over Germany and from neighbouring countries – the pretence of strength in numbers.)

    A few days ago, racist groups that have not been banned as yet, had planned a big event in Kassel, the town where a few weeks ago the CDU Premier of the State of Hesse[1], had been executed (shot in the head while sitting on the terrace of his house) allegedly by a member of the said groups (the case is before the court, therefore the word allegedly). The expected number of event participants was about 500. According to der Spiegel online, only a few dozens arrived and were effectively blocked by about 10,000 counter demonstrators who did call them out on big banners. At the same time, a similar event in the former East German city of Halle was cancelled by the town administration.

    A group of artists from Berlin acquired (rented or bought, I can’t remember) a block of land next door to Bjoern Hoecke’s house in a small town in Thuringia and built a small scale replica of the holocaust memorial in Berlin on it. The Berlin memorial features prominently in one of Hoecke’s dog-whistle speeches. (IMO, Hoecke is a more powerful version of dog-whistlers in Australia). Hoecke tried to have it removed via the courts but failed.

    [1] Not to forget, a female UK politician was murdered a few years ago.

  9. I have found, regarding labelling actions, or even suggesting that a particular action may have an impact that is experienced as racist, still gets the ‘are you calling me racist’ response.

  10. I’ve been accused on this blog that in my writing/comments everything is about me. I am happy to be accused again.

    When it comes to racism and many other issues, the alleged victims are usually not consulted about their thoughts and feelings. They are either ‘attaced’ or ‘defended’ by those who ‘know’, have the ‘right’ to know, but are not part of the discussion (And some likely feel patronised. I certainly do. ) Is this racist?

    An example: I’ve lived in Australia for 20 years, now longer than anywhere else. Yet most people I meet outside work will ask me “Where are you from?” Some will insist that I give them an answer even after I try to signal that I don’t wish to do so (and if asked insist that my accent is ‘interesting’ and that they ‘can’t place it’). I find this distressing to the point of avoiding talking to people. Are they being racist? Or simply curious?

    One australian accusing another of being racist, to protect me or to defend me, I also find distasteful and pointless. My spouse will often point out to me that so and so is being racist. I am then tempted to see him as racist. His comments are more hurtful than the original according to him racist behaviour.

    So I agree with the earlier comments. It is impossible to force each individual on the street (or even each politician/public figure) to be ‘unbiased’, to rid themselves of prejudice.

    The accusations and counter accusations are simply a waste of time. There has to be a better way to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

    The problem is that in the society we live in, ‘fairness to everyone’ has never been a well identified aim, that the society as a whole has strived to achieve.

    While we allow rethoric to be a legitimate way of discourse, poorly defined or not defined goals, etc. nothing will change.

  11. Of course we need those people who fight for and care about people who are attact because of their ‘race’ etc.

    (They should not have to use the word ‘racist’ to protect the ‘rights’ of these ‘victims’)

  12. AleD, regarding the question, quote: ““Where are you from?”, have you tried answering the question by stating either the suburb where you live or the region (eg northern suburbs, western suburbs, Melbourne…..). Over time you may get a feel for distinguishing between sincere curiosity, or an attempt to establish a social relationship or an undertone of something else, it being your ethnicity.

    IMO, depending on the circumstances, the question, where are you from, asked by an individual is not an a priori indicator of a racist checking for an ethnic background he or she believes to be inferior to his or her. Again, IMO, presumed superiority on ethnic grounds is an element I would associate with racism.

    Yes, during some periods, certain actions including speech in relation to various ethnic groups, may be considered to be undesirable by most people but they do not require a special category name. However, for quite some time the ‘ethnic card’ has been played by some politicians in various countries and this is causing unnecessary division, fear and confusion within societies. It is dangerous, IMO.

    I don’t wish to focus on the current US President, Mr Trump, because he makes no sense to me in so many ways that my personal response is – leave him to the professionals and the great majority of Americans who, I believe, can’t be fooled all of the time .

  13. Is racism always wrong? When I was a public servant, I worked with indigenous folk who got appointed via a special program that allowed them to enter the APS with test scores much lower than for general admission. The test was obviously racist as it involved differential treatment of applicants based on race, yet I thought it was a good program for various reasons, including ameliorating the poverty of indigenous Australians and counterbalancing, if only to a minor extent, the disadvantage indigenous Australians face due to systemic and entrenched racism.

  14. AleD

    I think you can misconstrue a friendly enquiry with racism. The friendly enquiry should be seen as a positive, we are all curious about others and it’s part of being accepted into a community. It’s not a colour, religion or race thing it’s more of a meet and greet.

    For instance if you go to Manhattan, everybody is from somewhere else and it seems to be no problem discussing your origins.

    The ‘go back to where you come from’ epithet is pure racism.

  15. rog

    Are you not informing me of what I need to do to fit in.

    I am not visiting!

    You seem to be telling me that to fit in I need to be happy to answer this question politly all my adult life. Otherwise I am not fitting in? Is this up to you to decide? Do I get a say too? Maybe I don’t feel that I am from anywhere in particular after all these years. Can you understand?

    Is this to justify that you likely would ask me too, if you met me, without considering how it makes me feel (rather than listen to me and acknowledging that maybe you don’t know how I feel, and that your curiosity should not take presedence at the cost of mu feeling uncomfortable)?

    Have you ever considered any of this?

    You are not recist, but can’t conceive that a person is not a static being. Even our body cells die and renew themselves regularly. What doesn’t change is the DNA, I guess. Given this you are effectively particularly interested in my DNA, and experiences from decades ago, you deny that I am a different person today, you limit my choices, constantly forcing me to recall (a painful) episode un my life.

  16. I would even add that being asked this question in a different country may be different (in a country where people are generally accepting, welcoming or sympathetic to people different from them, or where knowing the persons background would make them more sympathetic).
    In Australia, this is generally not the case (my background is not ‘illiminating’ to the person who asks in any way, nor are they interested in a serious conversation regarding my background or in sharing anything personal about themselves)

  17. @John Quiggin: “Let’s accept that millions of people in Australia, and in other countries, are racists”

    What exactly do you mean by that?

    Do you mean that millions of Australians have a positive belief that their race is absolutely superior to other races? Or, do you mean that, like 99% of humanity, they have some degree of subconscious racial bias? Something in between?

  18. AleD

    “You seem to be telling me that to fit in I need to be happy to answer this question politly all my adult life.”

    My dad was particularly sensitive to his origins, he rankled at the mere suggestion of difference and was overly reactive to the unspoken question; silly as he was from the UK.

    Perhaps he felt guilty at abandoning his roots.

    Yet others from the UK were happy to discuss their home and they made no bones about it.

  19. As to Desipis’ question, I think the overwhelming majority of humans, regardless of background, are likely to be racist to some extent, although they may be blinkered to it and much of it may be unconscious.
    I really appreciate studies like Professor Paul Frijters controversial “racism on the buses” study as I think studies like that give us something tangible to discuss. That study found whites and Asians were treated the same but Indians and blacks were discriminated against.

  20. Hugo “The test was obviously racist ”

    Clearly not. Racist were the people responsabile for aboriginal people being in the situation where they needed this special consideration.

  21. desipis

    Just looking at the situation in which aboriginal people find themselves today, the fact that they are not part of ‘us’, that they don’t have a place in our society, and the response to this of our democratically elected government, and our lack of action (and Hugo’s analysis above), should answer your question.

    It does not matter whether we consider ourselves superior or not.
    A whole group of people was seriously harmed because of who they were, and to add offence to injury, we refuse to properly commit, to right the wrongs (often even refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoings).

    This should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that we are all guilty of something serious.

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