Who is a racist? Definitions vary in red and blue America.

Why We Wrote This

If one word has dominated the U.S. news cycle lately, it’s probably “racist.” But the shouting match over presidential tweets is surfacing a divide over the definition of that incendiary word.

Jonathan Drake/Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, July 17, 2019. When he attacked Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as anti-American, the crowd began chanting, “Send her back!”

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Dee Bragg does not think President Donald Trump is racist. Waiting in a sweltering parking lot before the president’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday, the proud Trump supporter notes that his tweet telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “places from which they came” never mentioned race.

“Racism is when you believe one race is better than another, and that’s not what he said at all,” she says.

Massachusetts voter William Watkins disagrees. “He’s saying to his base, it’s them. They’re the problem,” says Mr. Watkins, who is represented in Congress by Ayanna Pressley, one of the lawmakers targeted by Mr. Trump’s tweets.

There are two very different working definitions of racism in the U.S. – the red state definition and the blue state definition. Minorities and Democrats living in blue states have a broader and more comprehensive view of what constitutes racist behavior than many Republicans living in red states perhaps understand or accept. The 2020 campaign could produce an uncomfortable national reckoning with this disparity.

“People bring their own meaning to ... the word,” says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse. “Racism is difficult to pin down.”

Hours before President Donald Trump held a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday night, nobody waiting in the heat and anticipation of the parking lot outside an East Carolina University auditorium said he was a racist. Nobody asked by a reporter thought his tweet telling four female members of Congress to “go back” to the “places from which they came” was racist at all.

The tweet was vague and didn’t refer directly to race, many said. Besides, “racist” is thrown around too much, in their view. Democrats use it at the drop of a MAGA hat.

“They use that word for everything now,” said rally attendee Johnny Liles of Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

Voters in Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District had a very different view.

The 7th  is represented by Ayanna Pressley, one of the congresswomen Mr. Trump referred to, and almost all of her constituents interviewed thought the tweet was racist – self-evidently so.

Many asked how anybody could doubt that “they” referred to black and brown people. The “go back” trope, long used against non-whites in America, was all the more offensive because all the women were citizens, and three were born in the U.S.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – a federal agency – uses “go back to where you came from” as an example of an ethnic slur, said Haris Hardaway, the owner of a boutique in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

During the Jim Crow era, those words were “used to invalidate our humanity and our citizenship of this country,” Mr. Hardaway said. ”And that’s why I see them as racist.” 

As this comparison shows, there are two very different working definitions of racism in the U.S. – the red state definition, and the blue state definition.

It’s no longer the 1960s. Most Americans would likely agree that it is racist to stand in a schoolhouse door, as then-Gov. George Wallace of Alabama did in 1963, to try to forcibly prevent the integration of the University of Alabama.

But minorities and Democrats living in blue states today have a broader and more comprehensive view of what constitutes racist behavior than many Republicans living in red states perhaps understand or accept. The 2020 campaign could produce an uncomfortable national reckoning with this disparity – particularly if Trump rallies continue to feature chants of  “Send her back!” as the crowd roared in Greenville Wednesday night. For his part, Mr. Trump disavowed the chant Thursday, saying, “I disagree with it.”

“Go back to the civil rights marches in the ’50s and ’60s, and a lot of white communities did not quite understand what racism was. So this is not new. It is more modern day racism with a suit and tie,” says retiree Danny Hardaway, Haris’s father.

“Go back”: a long-used phrase

Mr. Trump’s “go back” tweet and his subsequent comments were aimed at Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. All are women of color; all except Representative Omar were born in the U.S. (She is a naturalized citizen who came to America as a Somali refugee.)

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn (second from left) speaks as fellow Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. President Donald Trump ignited a firestorm with a tweet aimed at them.

The “go back” phrase’s long use to portray foreigners and non-white ethnic groups as not deserving of a place in America forced the news media to grapple with its descriptive terms in the wake of Mr. Trump’s eruption. Many flatly called it “racist.” Others attributed that designation to others, or used “racially tinged” or other euphemistic phrases.

Still others thought that description went too far. Fox News senior analyst Brit Hume thought Mr. Trump’s statements were nativist, ignorant, bad, and bad politics – but not racist. It didn’t meet the first definition of “racism” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, he said: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Many Trump rally attendees offered variations of this position in explaining why they didn’t think his tweet was racist. It wasn’t really derogatory, they said. It did not refer to blacks or Muslims or Hispanics directly, and did not even refer to the targets by name.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Kimberly Beyer (left) and her daughter Amanda Keating waiting in line for President Donald Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Wednesday. “I think it was an ignorant statement – like why would you tell citizens to ‘go back’ – but I don’t think it was racist,” said Ms. Keating, a schoolteacher, referring to a tweet by Mr. Trump. “Now, if anyone doesn’t like what you say, you’re a racist."

“Racism is when you believe one race is better than another, and that’s not what he said at all,” said Dee Bragg, from Nags Head, North Carolina.

Others bring a different experience and heritage to the same words, and thus hear something different.

“People bring their own meaning to what the word is. ‘Racism’ is difficult to pin down,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of U.S. political discourse with a forthcoming book on President Trump’s rhetoric.

Dr. Mercieca, for instance, disagrees with Mr. Hume, and believes that Mr. Trump’s statement does meet the standard definition of racism. Given the history of the phrase, what else would it be referring to, other than a minority whose position in America is thought tenuous? Without using specifics, it calls into question their place in the nation. Would anyone think to insult a white person by telling them to “go back to where you came from?”

The South enacted poll taxes, voter registration tests, and other pre-Civil Rights era restrictions on black voting rights without mentioning “black” in the laws. Were those racist?

“He’s saying to his base it’s them. They’re the problem. How could they tell us what to do? How could they come to our country and tell us what to do? But all ... these women are Americans,” says William Watkins, a 7th  district voter and director of workforce development at the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

Polling shows a sharp divide

A USA Today-Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that 65% of Americans aware of Mr. Trump’s “go back” statement agreed that it was racist.

But as is often the case in American politics today, that opinion broke sharply along partisan lines, with many Republicans saying it was not racist. And fully 70% of GOP respondents to the survey agreed with the statement “people who call others ‘racist’ usually do so in bad faith.”

That was another primary argument used by Trump supporters as to why they did not believe racism described his actions. Democrats and others don’t really mean it when they cry “racist,” they said. It’s just an all-purpose insult, an evocative one, used by his enemies.

“They are just so flippant with it,” said Al Byrum of Nags Head outside the President Trump rally venue.

The more it’s used, the more it loses its meaning, some Republicans say. Fox News talk show host Greg Gutfeld on Tuesday mocked CNN and MSNBC for a report that they used the word “racist” or variations 1,100 times in two days following President Trump’s tweet. National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger – no fan of Mr. Trump or the “go back” language – himself tweeted that as a Reagan conservative he’d been called a racist so often the charge now rings hollow.

“Good job, wolf-criers,” he tweeted.

Those who feel the sting of being called racist experience it as an insult. If it’s used over and over, the power of that sting may lessen. 

But those who use it see “racist” as both insult and description. It’s like calling something “blue,” to many Democrats and minorities. If you call 1,100 things blue, the 1,101st  object is still blue. It hasn’t turned green due to “blue” overuse.

But the identification of something as racist can be more subjective than simply noting its color. For instance, was Nike right to recently pull from the market sneakers depicting the 13-star banner known as the Betsy Ross flag, after former football star Colin Kaepernick objected that the flag dates to the era of 18th -century slavery and has occasionally been flown by far-right groups?

That move received plenty of pushback from Republicans and some Democrats as well.

“In liberalism it’s like everything’s about racism and it’s driving me crazy,” said Denis Rouleau, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident and supporter of President Trump. “If you don’t agree with liberals you’re a racist. That’s how it seems to me.”

This story was reported by Story Hinckley in Greenville, North Carolina, and Noah Robertson in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Boston. It was written by Peter Grier.

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