NYC mayor calls Trump 'a racist.' What does that achieve?

Some Americans are frustrated by rival politicians' reluctance to explicitly call Republican frontrunner Donald Trump a 'racist.' But the label may not change the conversation. 

Mic Smith/ AP/ File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, S.C. in this file photo from In this Dec. 7, 2015, file photo, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

"Of course Donald J. Trump is a racist," New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said on Facebook last Friday. 

Many #NeverTrump Americans welcomed the post, which he repeated in slightly different form on Twitter. For months, politicians across the spectrum have strongly condemned the real estate mogul's inflammatory style, but have for the most part avoided the R-word, perhaps out of recognition of the defensiveness it can provoke.

"If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin told reporters on March 1, after Mr. Trump's now I do, now I don't disavowal of former KKK leader David Duke's support

But Representative Ryan did not mention Trump by name, and some say his Democratic opponents have done little better.

"People can draw their own conclusions about him," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in last Wednesday's GOP debate, saying that he was "trafficking in prejudice and paranoia," and "un-American." 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, meanwhile, told moderators "the American people are never going to elect a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women, who insults African-Americans," and reminded listeners of Trump's central role in the "birther" movement doubting President Obama's US citizenship.

But it wasn't explicit enough for the hosts, or many Twitter listeners, who felt it was high time for a candidate to tell it like it is – or at least have the courage to spell out what they'd insinuated many times.

As anti-Trump fears reach a fever pitch ahead of the "Mega Tuesday" March 15 elections, built up as the deciding moment for clinching the nomination, some pundits are sounding the alarm about what they say is a dangerous candidacy, particularly for minorities.

But to talk about race in America, and the popularity of Trump's nativism, may counterintuitively require that his opponents refrain from the "racist" label, say some observers.

"Calling someone a racist is essentially a conversation stopper," Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview. "You close your ears to everything else that I had to say and you try to prove that you’re not. And that serves nobody well."

Accusations of racism switch the conversation from policies to character, promises the types of insult sound-bites some voters say they've seen far too much of already — and frankly, scholars say, is often beside the point.

"Pretty much everyone is a racist. By this I mean that, inadvertently or otherwise, people often treat other people differently because of race," University of Denver associate law professor Nancy Leong wrote last year. The question, she says, is what you do about it.

It's "far more productive" to focus on racist ideas, language, or behaviors, she argues, instead of "racist people": there's no hard and fast way to prove intent. Focusing on the harmful impact of those words or actions, instead, does more than make it less personal; it gets more done, rather than waste time with he said-she saids that let Trump distract from critics' real accusations with comments like "I have a great relationship with the blacks!

Real-life examples, rather than labels, are also needed to specify what, exactly, "racism" means: a powerful word that evokes very different experiences for different people.

Our definitions are always "culturally determined," Mr. Fulwood says:

When I go to the barbershop and everybody shares my same political bent or my background, they all can tell you, "Oh, we don’t have to argue about what’s racist or what’s not. We know! Look, this is racist!" There’s general consensus. Now if I go to a barbershop on the other side of town I can make the exact same argument, but they won’t share it, because their experiences aren’t the same. It’s imperative that you be able to be very very clear or explicit about [racism]. 

Umbrella accusations, on the other hand, "perpetuate people's feelings," but don't get any closer to understanding, he says.

And any "solution" needs to go beyond Trump, many observers say.

"I think he is emblematic," Mrs. Clinton said, when urged by an interviewer to name Trump specifically in her critiques of the campaign's divisive rhetoric. "I want people to understand it’s not about him, it’s about everybody."

Some put blame on the Republican party, accusing leaders of using softer, racially-laden "dog whistle" politics over the past half century, talking about "welfare queens" and or "urban violence" in ways that made discriminatory views more palatable and plausibly deniable: a strategy that helped win over Southern Democrats and reshaped both parties. Others argue that the election of the first black president brought simmering racist frustrations to the surface. 

Talking about that history in the open helps white Americans, too, University of California-Berkeley professor Ian Haney-López, the author of "Dog Whistle Politics," has argued, by revealing how politicians can sometimes distract from their supporters' own economic problems with more culturally- and racially-infused messages. 

"Racism in the United States is not just about mistreating minorities. Racism is fundamentally about scaring whites," Prof. Haney-López told Rolling Stone in November. "And the people who are scaring whites with racism, they are not doing it because they don't like people of color. They are doing it because this is a way to win votes for politicians who are basically serving the interests of billionaires."

Those conversations are bigger than sound-bites: yes-he-is or no-he-isn't statements, or 140-character Tweets that can suggest much more than saying outright, a particular Trump specialty. But for some people, the complexity of racial reconciliation and understanding doesn't take away from the need for clear-cut condemnations, in hopes that, even if divisive politics are nothing new, the response could be.

"We've seen these different historical parallels before," Mayor de Blasio told CNN's "New Day" on Monday. "This is the moment where people need to stand up and say Donald Trump does not represent democracy."

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