What Trump’s “race speech” will really be saying
I’ve been feeling hopeful seeing the protests and seeing white people in this country actually listen and be willing to have a real conversation about what’s up. We have to keep this momentum. America needs to stop having a racist society. Everyone who has been denied equality and fairness deserves it at long last, and it will be such a better country for everyone. I think about the endless injustice, the cruel tragedies in so many lives, how many people have been killed and brutalized and fucked with every day, people who have had the life sucked out of them by having to swim against this current all the time and then having the truth of it denied until this very day. I also think about all the lost potential.
I am also worried about a backlash. Trump is reportedly now “seriously” thinking about giving a speech on race this week. That will be the beginning of the backlash — at least the attempt, which I hope will fail as utterly as it deserves to.
The speech is just a vehicle for delivering the subtext
The purpose of the speech will not be to bring about justice or healing — the purpose will be to lay the groundwork for a return to the bad old days of forever. The speech will not be to or for black people — the sole purpose of the speech will be to deliver arguments to white people for why they are right and decent and justified in calling for a return, without fundamental changes, to the status quo ante. He will say things that carry no weight or credibility with black people or anyone else who is looking this in the eye, phrases intended to sound as if he were expressing compassion and care, though we all know he is devoid of them. This is the first element of the whitewash of the backlash. See, we all care very much about this, how dare anyone question that? Did you hear those words? Perfect.
This is the establishment of the grievance platform — we are decent folk, we care about people, we all agree that that one policeman shouldn’t have done what he did, bad apple. We care, and woe betide those who question our sincere goodness.
This is a stout bulwark because anyone who disagrees is insulting your character; but it also sets up the next part, which is that since we are good people who grant that we understand your frustration, it’s quite obvious that our objections to real change are eminently reasonable. Listen, I can understand you’re upset — heck, I might even be upset myself in your shoes — but let’s not let our emotions run away with us here.
Finally, he will plant numerous suggestions that every white person knows what to do with, the faint echoes of the racist system that he will be denying exists at the very moment he is personifying it: He will talk about the tragedy of (black, you know) rioters destroying their very own neighborhoods (ah, the senseless destruction, who would do such a thing); perhaps he will talk about the prevalence of single-parent homes (never mentioning, because no one who says this ever does, that we throw millions of black men into jail for things that white people get away with and then punish them for it for a lifetime when they get out); maybe he will talk about the sad incidence of diabetes being responsible for so many coronavirus deaths, reminding his true audience of white supporters that although we can’t say it right now, we all know that actually black people are responsible for their own plight and that that, in the end, is why white cops have to be so tough — because they have to deal with all these subhuman criminals.
If he doesn’t mention the code word Chicago — the pinnacle of self-absolution mixed with disgust: Look at how those savages kill each other and you want to blame us? — many in his audience will be mouthing it to themselves as he reminds us of black troubles. He will, of course, also take credit for everything that worked and blame others for everything that was criticized; but even this routine will highlight the menace of black people. After I told the governors to dominate we regained control of the streets from the thugs and I didn’t have to send in the army to deal with the thugs. Thugs, thugs. Animals, animals. These are not words for white people in Donald Trump’s America, we know that.
Everyone will understand, some will choose not to
This entire subtext will be understood, more or less consciously, by almost everyone. But for the whites who want to take it at face value, the effect will be remarkable. They will come away from this performance feeling reassured that they are good people and that they don’t deserve to be blamed for racism in America and therefore that anyone who calls for any change or action that would require sacrifice or even inconvenience on the part of such innocent folks as themselves, is unreasonable. And isn’t it about time someone spoke up for the cops again, those beleaguered men who are usually worshiped by whites as much as anyone save perhaps the soldier. (We should downgrade our worship to respect and spread that respect around more evenly — to everyone. Why is the policeman superior to the citizen? The special admirability of the position derives from it being a role of service. The “heroism” (let us retire the word) comes from the humility of it. People who are shoving and shouting are seldom serving.)
The speech will also mention, with mocking disbelief, the idea of defunding the police, the latest right-wing scare-phrase that is used to elicit disgust and side-choosing without anyone ever thinking about it. That too is a white-black faultline, at least for Republicans.
But think for a second: Why on earth would black people think the police are so wonderful and needful? If you’re black, the police aren’t flying to the rescue — they might well arrest you or worse if YOU call 911 for help. Cops are people who bust you for shit they ignore when a white person’s doing it and treat you like a suspect no questions asked. The police are to protect white people against black people who aren’t doing anything. The police protect the existing social order, not all residents equally. No fucking wonder black people want help other than the police.
Radical thought: Maybe we should listen to the people who actually experience what is being discussed
The rest of us should listen to them because maybe they actually fucking know what they need and don’t. And as much as Republicans try to make an issue out of this, police departments are not going to be abolished and they damn well know it — but hopefully they are going to be changed and communities can find solutions that actually make sense for the situations when cops don’t. Who needs an amped-up Rambo with a gun when someone’s having a mental health situation? (Actually, who ever needs an amped-up Rambo?) We should be thinking about this stuff, not killing discussions with dishonest scaring. Society doesn’t have to be this stupid. But I digress …
All this manipulative speechifying will restore the prior balance in which black people are rather imperfect supplicants and whites are decent folks who are doing their level best.
White blamelessness is incompatible with justice for black people
This routine of establishing communal white blamelessness (any culprits are individuals or small groups of misguided youths — note the contrast to black miscreants, who represent the whole race) doesn’t just absolve whites. It simultaneously casts black people in the role of complainers, undeserving people casting aspersions and asking for special treatment. Who wronged them? Wasn’t me. What are they mad at me for?
If the white people are blameless, the black people can’t have a legitimate grievance — at least not one that entitles them to any redress. It might be that some of them suffer some sort of ill treatment, but if you can’t identify a culprit, or if the culprit is just one guy, it would be unfair to ask white people to make amends!
I think this is one of the things we never see. We’re not really accepting the realness of racism if we try to do it without copping to our culpability. If no one is guilty, where is the crime? And if there is no crime, how much legitimacy do we really give to the complaint? White blamelessness is in conflict with justice for black people. We don’t have to admit to crimes we didn’t personally commit, but we have to at least acknowledge that the bank robber shared the loot with us and the black guy got arrested for it. We have to admit it. We have to right the injustice against the black guy who got hauled in because he was black, we have to give back the loot and the bank robber has to face justice.
The problem is really that too many white people are not ready for that. We do this shit charade because we’re not ready to make it right. Why am I talking for white people? I am ready. I hope we’re all getting there. I hope this moment is a big step forward and maybe it is, but we already hear the voices trying to take us back to the same old shit. We have to reject that crap once and for all. We need to get there, all of us. It’s way past time.