Leading anti-racism activist explains how Trump's 'casual racism' fuels far-right terrorism
On the most basic level white privilege consists of the unearned advantages that those individuals who are defined as "white" in America and other societies enjoy, measured relative to and against other people.White privilege manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes this is obvious: institutional discrimination in housing, hiring and employment, as well as divergent levels of political power. Sometimes this is subtle: subconscious and implicit bias; "microaggressions"; cultural norms and double standards which are unfair to those people not considered white.Ultimately, the age of Donald Trump has been a triumph for white privilege in its many forms.
A week or so ago, white privilege was omnipresent, loud, and unapologetic on the American national stage in ways that few reasonable people could deny. On Saturday there was an attack on a Jewish synagogue by a neo-Nazi terrorist in Poway, California. One person was killed and several others injured. Because he is a white man, this neo-Nazi terrorist of course became the subject of sympathetic profiles by mainstream journalists seeking to understand how such a "religious" young person from a "devout Christian" home could allegedly commit such horrible crimes.
On that same Saturday, a group of neo-Nazis targeted Dr. Jonathan Metzl while he gave a talk at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington on his new book "Dying of Whiteness." On the previous day, Donald Trump had continued to tell shameless lies about the Charlottesville riot of 2017, during which Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi. In a crude and gross channeling of white identity politics, Trump continues to insist that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who ran amok in Charlottesville are "very fine people" who were really only concerned about saving a statue of Robert E. Lee, who could be viewed as the leader of a breakaway white supremacist army.
In total these are examples of white privilege as malevolent violence, excuse-making, entitlement and a refusal to be held accountable for one's behavior.
What does this series of events reveal about the color line and "race relations" in the age of Trump? How should good people resist this Trump-inspired tide of racism, intolerance, and increasing violence directed against America's multiracial democracy? How do we understand white Christian terrorism, and why are so many Americans, especially politicians and journalists, afraid to use that specific language? How is the relationship between whiteness and Jewish identity being challenged and made more complex by resurgent anti-Semitism in the age of Trump?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of the nation's leading anti-racism activists and a frequent guest on MSNBC and other news outlets. Wise is the author of numerous books, including “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority” and “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
The weekend before last there was a neo-Nazi terrorist attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, Jonathan Metzl was harassed by neo-Nazis in Washington, and President Trump continued to deliver outrageous falsehoods about what actually happened at the Charlottesville riot in 2017. How would you explain this coincidence of events?
In trying to make sense of Donald Trump, many people have a hard time connecting the dots between Donald Trump's rhetoric and anti-Semitic violence because they succumb to such claims as, "Well, he doesn't really say hateful things about Jews." Or they may say things like, "You know, Jared Kushner's Jewish, and Ivanka, she converted, and the grandkids are Jewish," or "Trump also loves Israel."
Never mind that a lot of us who are Jewish are not that supportive of Israel — so Trump does not get extra points. If the best argument for how he is supposedly taking on anti-Semitism is to talk about how much he loves Jews who live on the other side of the world, then he and his supporters are making a very weak and laughable claim. Trump supposedly loving Israel does not protect American Jews from American anti-Semitism.
In addition, the idea that you've got family who are Jewish and that supposedly insulates you from a charge of anti-Semitism is the wrong analogy. It is the equivalent of saying that if you're married to a woman, you can't be a sexist. If you have a black friend, you can't be a racist. Of course you can. You can view a larger group negatively, even if you carve out exceptions for a handful of friends or family.
We know that Donald Trump has made some old-school anti-Semitic comments about Jews, such as how he only wants them counting his money. Trump does not do the "Jews are planning white genocide" narrative, and I'm sure he doesn't even think like that. What people are missing is that it is not really Donald Trump's rhetoric about Jews that leads to synagogue shootings or other attacks on Jewish people.
What encourages this violence is actually Trump's rhetoric about immigrants. Why? White nationalists and Nazis believe that Jews are behind nonwhite immigration to America and the West more generally. David Duke said this in his autobiography, which he wrote in 1998. He said he'd been looking at the immigration debate over the last hundred years, and the thing he uncovered was that the force behind lax immigration laws was always organized Jewry. That is the Nazi line. That is the white nationalist line.
When Trump talks about immigration the way he does — rapists, killers, criminals and invaders — Trump is signaling to Nazis and other members of the white right that they have to do something about what they consider to be the source of the problem. In their mind it is Jewish people and Jewish financiers like George Soros, another frequent target of Trump's vitriol, who must be stopped.
Donald Trump's intent does not matter. What does matter are the outcomes of his language and policies.
I have to disagree. I used to believe that about Trump, but of late, the way he uses tropes and talking points about "invaders" from Latin and South America, his obsession with George Soros, retweeting white supremacists etc., I think Donald Trump knows exactly what he's doing.
I really believe that his primary takeaway from the immigration debate is his focus on what he and his allies view as "horrible brown people." I think he sees it in just pure racial terms, white vs. nonwhite. I think that Trump's anti-Semitism is more of the old-school garbage that one would hear at the country club and not at a Klan rally. Is that anti-Semitism? Yes. Is it David Duke's kind of anti-Semitism? No. Is it Andrew Anglin's? No. It is the casual racism of a 72-year-old white man.
For Trump, George Soros is just a liberal billionaire — and Trump probably hates Soros more for being rich than anything to do with him being Jewish. It happens to be very convenient for the white nationalists and Nazis that George Soros is Jewish. If Soros were not Jewish then Donald Trump would still be attacking him.
The bottom line is parsing Trump's intent is a boring debate. I think it doesn't really matter because at the end of the day I know what the white nationalists are hearing. Again, Trump's intentionality does not matter so much as the effect of his rhetoric.
How is the age of Trump complicating the relationship between whiteness and (white) Jewish identity in America and the West?
I hope that the age of Trump and what it has encouraged and directly spawned will lead to some needed discussions about a number of things. First, I hope that we will not take this upsurge in anti-Semitism as somehow an excuse to not deal with our white privilege as Jewish people. White privilege continues to operate in America and other countries against people of color. I hope we don't use this moment as a way to say, "We don't really have white privilege, see? We're still hated and we're still hunted." Obviously, it complicates our white privilege, just like working-class white folks have a complicated type of white privilege, just like LGBTQ white folks have a complicated type of white privilege, and just like white women have a complicated type of white privilege.
Nuance is important in these discussions and types of analysis. Multiple things can be true at one time. I as a Jewish person can be advantaged on one level because I am socially and culturally seen as white. I am considered to be "white" by employers, police, teachers, etc.
But I as a Jewish person can also occasionally be the target of hatred by individuals or groups and yes, by society at large. Now, at this particular point, I do not think that we can make a very good argument for institutionalized anti-Semitism on a large scale in this country. What we are now dealing with is more individual-level hatred. This threat is very real. What is also real is that for at least a half-century, Jewish folks have functioned pretty much as white people in America.
The second thing I hope we can do in the age of Trump is to work with our Muslim brothers and sisters to recognize the need that we have for solidarity in this moment. Right now, obviously, there's a lot that divides Jewish and Muslim folk, particularly around the so-called Middle East: Palestine and Israel, particularly around the BDS movement. We've got to talk that through and work that through, and we've got to find some real workable peace and justice solutions for Palestine and for Israel and for the people who live in that part of the world.
Having said that, while we all, American Muslims and American Jews in particular, are trying to talk about these issues we must be sure to highlight that a person is not automatically assumed to be anti-Semitic because they criticize Israel or because they support the BDS movement. We also need to be mindful how one should be able to criticize Israel and not use anti-Semitic tropes while doing so. If we can do that, then Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans can come together and work on common solutions to the problem of how right now, in this moment, we are both under the gun, literally.
Our common enemy is white nationalism and white supremacy. Maybe this provides an opening for Muslims and Jews to sit down and say, "You see what they're doing? You see what they're doing? They want us to fight." It's the same thing that white supremacy does with all people of color. It tries to pit black against Asian and Latino. It tries to pit everybody against Native Americans. Maybe this moment of threat and danger will remind some Jewish folks that whiteness is a guest pass and it can be revoked. We need to be bonding with other marginalized people rather than trying to suck up to people at the top and become part of the power structure, which is what I'm afraid far too many people have done.
Given the threat posed by right-wing militias — and now an increasing amount of violence by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists — there needs to be a sustained public conversation about white Christian terrorism in America and other parts of the world.
We might be willing to call it "far-right terrorism." Some politicians, journalists and others will even be willing to call it "white racist terrorism," though not Donald Trump and not the people in this administration. Yet to call it Christian is almost never done. When you try to do so, of course, they will trot out the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. This is easily deflected and exposed: If there are all these people calling themselves Christians and engaging in terrorism, then why not call it out for what it is?
Muslims are not given that pass for sure. If someone is a terrorist acting on behalf of ISIS, it would be absurd not to call them Muslim. But at the same time we certainly should not call it "Muslim terrorism," Wahhabism generally does not represent Islam any more than it would be the case that Dominionist Christianity represents Christianity.
We certainly should be calling it Jewish terrorism or Christian terrorism when it's on the other side, and we just don't. We don't do it whether it's in Israel when a Jewish settler is committing some horrible, atrocious assault on Muslim people or when it is someone in the United States attacking a synagogue or a mosque. We need some consistency. And we need to be able to have that consistency precisely so that the vast majority of Christians who reject such thinking, that white Christian terrorist violence and behavior, actually feel compelled to distance themselves from it.
Whenever there's an act of Muslim terrorism conservatives will say "Where are the other Muslims condemning it?" Well, the fact is, Muslims do this all the time.
When so-called Christians commit acts of terrorism, I don't remember the last time that a Christian conservative evangelical leader, stood up and said, "Oh, my God, this was horrific." Even if they might say it's horrific, they're not going to stand up and say, "How dare this person claim to be a Christian? We renounce this in the name of our faith." They never would do that. They offer up their thoughts and prayers, and they move about their business. Rarely do church leaders distance themselves from people who are committing terrorist acts in their name.
A simple counterfactual is very illustrative. If it was brown or black folks or Muslims shooting up white churches and engaging in other types of terrorism the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI would not be ordered to stand down, as has taken place under Trump's regime.
If Christopher Hasson were a Muslim and he had a kill list and stockpiled weapons — and especially if he were a person of color, a Muslim of color — there is absolutely no question that right now any Muslim in the United States armed services would be investigated. They wouldn't necessarily all be purged, but I guarantee they would all be under some type of suspicion. They certainly would not have been on the verge of being let go without punishment or prison sentence.
As the default, when a white terrorist or mass shooter commits a heinous crime — there are already stories in the mainstream news media humanizing the neo-Nazi who is accused of attacking the synagogue in Poway, California.
I still don't know anything at all about the 9/11 hijackers' families and childhoods. I don't know anything about Mohamed Atta. I do think it's important to humanize people, because even if it's not to excuse behavior, we as a society should want to understand the root causes of pathological and other dangerous behavior. If we are going to do that for the Christopher Hassons of the world, if we're going to do that for this shooter in New Zealand, if we're going to do that for this shooter in California at the synagogue, then we ought to do it for everyone. At present it largely seems that humanizing these alleged terrorists and other killers is done in such as way as to protect white folks and demean black and brown folks.
Please explain Donald Trump's continued evasions and outright lies about the Charlottesville hate riot. This is all part of a right-wing conspiracy theory trafficked by the so-called "Charlottesville truthers."
The fact is that Donald Trump made three different statements about what happened in Charlottesville. The first one he made involved him absolutely 100% downplaying the problem of white supremacy and white supremacists by saying that there were "good people on both sides." Then the second statement Trump said, which was scripted, he condemned white supremacy, racism and hatred. Then the next day Trump gets asked about Charlottesville again, and he's off script and goes back to what he really thinks and feels.
All the reporting indicated that Trump was angry at himself for backtracking earlier. He wanted to go back to his original statement, which is what he really believed. It is very clear that Donald Trump did not and does not view what happened in Charlottesville as a right-wing racist riot but that is exactly what it was.
When he says there are good people on both sides, first, for the sake of argument let's just take him at his word that he didn't mean the Nazis. Well, then who does Trump mean? He says, "people were there for the statue." Who were they? Because what he said the other day was, "You know, the night before the rally" — which is when Heather Heyer was murdered — "the night before the rally was when they went to the statue."
Right. That's the night they went with the tiki torches, yelling, "Jews will not replace us," and, "Blood and soil," to the Robert E. Lee statue. They then attacked a group of anti-racists. Contrary to some of the fictions, there was no antifa attack. The white supremacists attacked anti-racist organizers who were surrounding the statue peacefully. They were not legally on that campus. The people who surrounded the statue actually did have a right to be there because many of them were UVA students.
When Trump says, "I'm talking about the people the night before and they were there for the statue," there is nobody since the summer of 2017 who has come out and said, "I was only there for the statue. I just went there to defend the Confederate memorials." Not one person who was there has come out and said .— and you know they would if there was such a person — "I went there to defend these statues, but, oh my God, I was horrified by the fact that there were Nazis. I was stunned. I was shocked. I didn't expect that, and then I went up to them and I said, 'Oh my God, you clearly have misunderstood our intention.'"
Not one person has come out and said that they left in disgust when they saw Nazi symbols or they heard Nazi slogans. Not one person ever came out and said, "Oh my God, I renounce this, I didn't know what I was getting myself into, this is terrible." These people are not history buffs. It was called, for God's sake, the Unite the Right rally. It wasn't called the Defend Robert E. Lee's Statue rally.
There was nothing the night before that was any less bigoted, any less Nazi-ish, any less racist than what happened the next day. Even taking him at his word, Trump's argument about Charlottesville does not make any sense whatsoever.
If Donald Trump really had a problem with the racists who support him and who openly acknowledge their support for him, he would do more than simply criticize them when he's asked multiple times about the issue.
Trump would call a press conference and say, "Listen, it is obvious that I have been misunderstood from the very beginning, and I don't know why. I think I speak very clearly. I have the best words, after all, but clearly you all have not understood me. Let me make it very clear. Not only do I not believe these things, I renounce all of these ideologies and I renounce you personally. I don't want your support. If you are a white supremacist or a white nationalist, I do not want your vote. I do not want your support. I don't want my name in your mouth."
These are perilous times. What would you tell those folks who have seen Jonathan Metzl being harassed or know that you have experienced similar things, who want to speak out and get involved in the struggle against Trump, or fighting for civil and human rights, but are afraid?
We all have to make a calculus about what we're going to do in this particular moment, and what we're going to do tomorrow and next week and next year. Although there may be better times and worse times to make certain statements and decisions, you cannot run away forever from truth-telling and fighting for justice.
If we do not do it the problem metastasizes. And at some point the calculus has to be, what is the greater risk? Is the greater risk speaking up and knowing that I'm going to attract the attention of people who might indeed want to harm me? Or is the greater risk remaining quiet and knowing that if they gain power they are still going to harm me anyway?
It's not as if you're going to be safe if they come to power and they just never heard your voice before. If they come to power and you have any principles whatsoever that are progressive and decent and humane, or if you are Jewish or if you are a person of color, or if you are liberal or if you are a feminist or if you are LGBTQ, or if you are anything that is not them, they are going to come for you.
There's no safety in silence unless you know for a fact that they will never win. I don't know for a fact that they will never win. The silence and the lack of moral rectitude and not standing up to these kinds of hateful people will only hasten the demise of a democratic and multicultural society. When that happens it is going to be quite a bit too late for you to start tweeting out your concerns.
There is strength in numbers. The more people who speak out, the more safe all of us will be. The danger is when it's only a handful of people, but if there are hundreds of us, if there are thousands, if there are tens of thousands, if there are millions of people who are speaking up with one voice, then several things are true. No. 1, they can't kill us all, and No. 2, they'll be less likely to try to kill any if us, because they will understand that there is a countervailing force trying to raise the cost of this type of behavior.