Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Bob Campbell’s nonfiction piece, Calling on Lady Day and John Coltrane
John: Let me start by outing myself as one of those deluded white people who thought the US was a lot less racist than it is revealing itself to be. As you point out in your piece, one of the seminal moments in our current predicament seems to be the election of Obama—the “too many brothas at the club” phenomenon. Did the sight of an African-American man in the White House create a new population of bigots, or did it just reveal something that has been there all along?
Bob: I do think there is a portion of the white population that has difficulty dealing with or accepting a black person as an authority figure or as the “face” or “symbol” of an organization. That’s obviously true for the racist, but I think it also affects those who wouldn’t consider themselves racist in a conventional way. So, the election of President Obama exposed some of that latent bias. However, the bigots have never gone away. I think, in many cases, they’ve tried to move away and have sought to insulate themselves from a non-white society as much as possible.
The modern Republican party (of the last 50 years or so) was borne of racial grievance and racial avoidance/exclusion. Now, they’ve run as far as they can run. So, there is a segment that either wants its own white country in the northwest part of the U.S. or someone like Trump who vows to “make America great again” through various policies.
Of course, relations have improved considerably. No question. At the same time, there’s so much plausible deniability when it comes to race. Sometimes you’re hit with that “oh-you’re-black” look of surprise. It’s usually very subtle but detectable, nonetheless. It’s in the body language. Other times, you’ll have an encounter where you know something is amiss with the other person’s behavior. So, you’ll run through your mental checklist to determine if the problem is race-related or if the person is just an asshole, or both.
My son played on a little league baseball team where he was the only black kid. His head coach was racist, in a contemporary, plausibility deniability sense. Although it was a slow boil, there were things that the coach did to make it clear that my son wasn’t a valued member of the team. What was really bothersome about that experience was the silence of the other parents, who could see clearly what was happening.
After the terrorist attack that occurred at the white power rally in Charlottesville, Va., on August 13, it’s clear there needs to be an examination of how some young, white “Christian” males are becoming or have become radicalized. What are the telltale signs? A toxic combination of gun fetish, love of authoritarianism, battered self-esteem, perhaps? How can communities in which those men and youth reside respond effectively? The parents and community members must break their silence about the scourge of racism and white nationalism, not unlike those parents who sat silently as my son was mistreated.
Many segments of the so-called alt-right have been emboldened to express their racism openly. Is it better to have these attitudes out in the open, where they can more easily be identified and combated, or is the new ease with their own racism a sign of the apocalypse?
Alt-right? You mean, racists? We must drop the term “alt-right.” It’s white supremacy. It’s white nationalism. It’s racism. We cannot allow good ol’ fashioned racism to be normalized with some slick messaging. We must also be careful to not simply label it as Nazism or neo-Nazism, as if it’s something “foreign” and “imported.” This is homegrown stuff. In fact, Adolf Hitler and his band of Nazis used American state-sponsored racism as a template for its own anti-Jewish policies, a precursor to their attempt to achieve a Final Solution.
Now to answer your question, I prefer to know whom I’m dealing with. It’s much easier to defeat a standing army than a band of terrorists and would-be terrorists, who hit and run before blending back into society. Saddam Hussein’s army was defeated in no time, right? The “new ease with their own racism” of today’s white supremacists is due largely to the guy in the White House. Now, you have a U.S. president, with key advisors, who says it’s cool to hate and discriminate. They want so desperately to believe that “this nation is white…and it’s ours and ours alone.”
Having said that, it’s an intriguing question. I have acquaintances who voted for the current president. To be clear, these people haven’t expressed any of the repugnant white nationalistic views of Trump and the racists who feel so emboldened by his election. Not to me or in my presence, that is. Still, the cordiality of those relationships has been affected—deeply affected in some cases. That creates distance, which can lead to misunderstanding and distrust.
As Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in the aftermath of Charlottesville: “It’s time for choosing. And it is time to repair the damage to the fabric of democracy and make certain the threat to our diverse, democratic society is extinguished…”
We have recently had the horrifying experience of our president taking sides with a Nazi demonstration. It’s impossible to argue at this point that there is a wide, deep current of racism running through America. Does this end the plausible deniability forever, or are we doomed to cycles of overt and covert racism?
No, I don’t think this ends the “plausible deniability” defense. Overt racism is easy to disavow, and that’s been true for a long time. The more nuanced displays will continue under the guise of plausible deniability. While it’s nice that so many Republicans have come out strongly against Trump’s defense of the “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, it remains to be seen whether those same Republicans will put their money where their mouths are from a policy standpoint. Will they shutdown his bogus voter fraud commission as well as the GOP efforts to curtail voting rights? How will they repair the damage caused by their complicity with that birtherism nonsense?
Paraphrasing what Chris Rock said about the Tea Party, is this like the last tantrum before a toddler falls asleep?
I, too, have wondered at times whether we’re witnessing the last gasp of a dying body of thought. Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean the last gasp will be brief. It will be slow and painful, I’m afraid. And, man, it is troubling to see so many young people picking up the torch of hate, so to speak. Social media has made it a lot easier for these misfits and wannabe terrorists to meet, congregate and plan in secret.
Politicians like Bernie Sanders have been criticized for refusing to acknowledge racism as a component of the right, framing things instead in entirely socio-economic terms. I don’t agree with him here, but I think there is an argument to be made that at least part of the racist right’s current popularity can be ascribed to insecurity—middle class whites, seeing their traditional bases of power erode, are easy targets for demagogues supplying them with scapegoats. In less troubled economic times, would we see less racism?
When you talk about the middle-class whites seeing their traditional bases of power erode, I say: Well, so much for that whole “color-blindness” thing, huh? I don’t think that better economic conditions would necessarily mean less racism. Flint, Michigan, for example, was an extremely prosperous working class/middle class city in the post-World War II era of the’50s, ’60s and into mid/late ’70s. There was also plenty of racial discrimination and neighborhood segregation. I also find the blanket socio-economic explanation to be a cop-out in addressing the underlying issue of race. The suburban community I live in is doing quite well. The economy has rebounded, new construction projects in the downtown, and a resurgent residential real estate market. The rebound from the Great Recession began on Obama’s watch. But that community still went for Trump by a sizable margin (56.5 percent for Trump to Clinton’s 43.5 percent). Now I get that some people will say that they didn’t support Trump on the basis of his white nationalist campaign. And why is it that concerns about economic insecurity are only valid when talking about white folks? Or when we say “working class” that it is somehow exclusive to whites? Now, because there are different levels of racism, I suppose you could say that “trying economic times” will expose or intensify an existing problem.
I desperately want to believe that people are essentially good, that if they really see the injustices that surround them it will spur them more toward justice. At the same time, history shows us many moments where mass movements like the current American racist right have led to chaos and horror. It feels like we’re at an inflection point right now. Any bets on which way we’re going to tip?
I’m still betting on our better angels prevailing. As I wrote, more people voted against Trump than for him. The counter-protesters are outnumbering the pro-white supremacy crowd at demonstrations. Those are all encouraging signs. (On a side note, I’m still astounded that a majority of white women voted for Trump over Clinton.) There’s that old saying about progress rarely moving forward in a straight line and that it instead meanders. Sometimes while meandering, you can even find yourself going in the opposite direction of your intended destination at some point. That’s where we are with Trump, by the way—heading in the wrong direction. But we can still reverse course.