Accusations of racism are rife in American political life these days. The Make America Great Again slogan is claimed to be racist. According to an op-ed in the New York Times, the wall that President Trump wants built at the border is a symbol of racism, if not an overtly racist act.
These claims are so implausible as to be irresponsible. And that is not because of my enthusiasm for red MAGA caps or for walls. A better slogan would be Make American Even Greater. It is already great. That’s why so many people of so many different races, ethnicities and nations want to come here even illegally. But this slogan was meant to appeal to voters, principally in the Rust Belt, who felt left out of the prosperity of the last decades—and who did not vote Republican in the last few elections, but might switch. Targeting these voters showed a shrewd focus on the marginal voter who could carry Trump to victory, not any evidence of racism.
And while I think illegal immigration must be stopped not least because it corrodes respect for the rule of law, I am not at all sure the extent to which a wall is the effective way to do it. But even more effective ways would also stop people who are disproportionately Latino from coming illegally to the United States. The population of the world’s poor that can get here illegally without getting over the natural barriers of oceans is largely Latino. The reasons for focusing on the southern border are related to geography and wealth, not race.
What is the reason for this doubling down of rhetoric? One explanation is simple. Given slavery, the original sin of America, a charge of racism remains a political trump card. In this regard its function is not essentially different from calling one’s opponents Nazis, such a frequent trope in comments on the early internet that it created its own “law” that observed how such accusations regularly stopped all rational discussion. My impression is that the calling out of this practice has decreased its prevalence. Would that we create similar norms to decrease ill-founded accusations similarly poisonous to rational discourse!
But another explanation for the ever-expanding accusations of racism is that the Left (and it almost always is the Left that makes such accusations) is trying to change the sense of “racism” to connote something like “a policy position that opposes progressivism.” We live in turbulent times and social upheaval has distorted settled meanings of words before. Thucydides described the phenomenon more than 2,000 years ago:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.
One reason that progressives would like to redefine racism is that many of their own preferred policies are race-conscious. For instance, admission and hiring at the modern elite university—a progressive bastion—is as a matter of policy influenced by considerations of racial and ethnic identity. Race-consciousness also marks progressive policies that want to shape housing and even taxation by considering its effects on defined racial and ethnic groups.
I am emphatically not accusing those who espouse these policies of racism. Often the argument for the policies is that to transcend racism, we need to be race-conscious—not that this argument is one I much agree with, either. But race-conscious policies do treat people differently because of race, which is also true of policies that are the paradigms of racism. It would be an advantage to the Left if the concept of racism morphs so that its paradigm cases are not those that reflect differential treatment. As George Orwell perceived, politics is a battle of language, not least because most people think reflexively and not deeply about public policy. Therefore even subtle shifts in the connotations of words may pay political dividends.