Recent events in Charlottesville have shone a light on the attitude to race of President Trump and his now departed political strategist, Steven Bannon.
For a moment Trump seemed to be making his position clear:
“When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.” [source]
And then, as if uncomfortable with this clarity, Trump slid into an equivalence between the white supremacists and – his own coinage – the “alt left”:
“You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” [source]
Those who demonstrated in opposition to the white supremacists would probably admit righteous anger; there is indeed a Christian tradition of such anger, rooted in the occasion when Jesus went into the temple to overturn the tables of the merchants and the moneylenders.
What about violence though? Is it possible to offer any proof that, as a group, the white supremacists intended violence and that those opposing them came with no such intention? We know that one of the white supremacists intended violence which led to the shocking murder of Heather Heyer, but perhaps, as Trump implies, this was an exception.
The white supremacists came armed with a pretty mighty array of weapons, at least in the television footage that I witnessed. Doubtless, the cameras were more drawn to the assault rifle bearing “collection of clowns and losers”, [as Steve Bannon has called them], than to other less heavily armed sections of this protest.
In some cases, those expressing anger at the white supremacists felt it necessary to bring with them weapons of self defence, which I believe included clubs, and in some cases, knives.
Criminal intent is a tricky thing to establish, as ultimately it resides in the mind – but speaking personally, I would say the white supremacists looked a lot more like a gang of dangerous criminals than those opposing them; but then I am, in my own way, prejudiced; I believe the statues of General Lee were only erected in more recent years as an expression of unresolved underlying racism.
Prejudice, is at the heart of this issue, and I believe, to properly understand what is happening, we should accept that we are, each one of us, susceptible to prejudice.
In 1979, Psychologist Henri Tajfel, together with John Turner, proposed Social Identity Theory, at the centre of which lay the idea of in-groups and outgroups, and our tendency to favour those in the groups of which we are a member against those who are outside such groups.
Tajfel devised the Minimal Groups study, and was able to gather evidence that instinctive hostility to the outgroup, prompted self harming discrimination.
A little self examination seems appropriate, in the light of this idea.
I do not have people of colour as part of my closest social groupings, I do not encounter many people of colour in my workplace or in the area where I live. According to Tajfel’s theory, it follows that I will have a tendency to be racially prejudiced. But can this really be the case? After all, I was a consistent opponent of apartheid South Africa; I revere Nelson Mandela, and regard Martin Luther King as one of the great heroes of United States history. For me, the idea that I harbour prejudice is a difficult one; yet I would acknowledge that from time to time, I do recognise prejudiced tendencies within my own impulses.
In my defence, I would say that I have an underpinning value system based on the idea enshrined, as it happens, in the American constitution that “All men are created equal”. My more immediate inspiration for this egalitarian thought, given my residence in South West Scotland, would be Robert Burns, who applying himself to the question of social class divisions wrote:
|The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that. .
If we accept this idea, then where society becomes more fully integrated, where in-groups becomes less distinguishable from outgroups; my prediction is, that prejudice will diminish. But such a process of integration, is difficult to manage, frequently resisted by both dominant and minority groups, which, in their different ways, value their own way of life and fear its dilution. Furthermore, in a free society, there is the counterbalancing tendency of schism, where groups evolve their own oppositional identity; punk rock in the 1970’s UK is an example of this par excellence.
But let me return to my original concern: are Trump and Bannon closet racists?
At some level, they have the same tendencies towards prejudice as the rest of us, but my guess is that they will work and socialise with people regardless of race or religion, so long as they find them to be congenial, and in harmony with their own interests. Trump, though apparently born into the Protestant religion, has married a Slovenian Roman Catholic, has a Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a daughter, Ivanka, who is a convert to the religion of her husband. Kushner is at the very heart of Trump’s administration. My concern about Trump and Bannon is not that they discriminate in their personal conduct, but that they lack any underpinning value system, other than: “America first, America first, America first.”
In the case of Donald Trump it is obvious to many observers that even this value is a piece of theatre, thinly disguising his true core value: “Donald Trump first, Donald Trump first, Donald Trump first.” Once we understand this core value, the unscrupulous driver of his and Bannon’s conduct is thrown into relief. They may not themselves be racist in their thinking, but they are instinctively ready to appeal to the prejudiced impulses which they know lie festering beneath the surface of their core support, a seam which has been fed, in some cases, by an unmonitored nostalgia for the emblems and myths of the old South.
Unlike the white supremacists, I imagine that white working class America, for the most part, knows that racial discrimination is wrong, but like any in-group, white America, to the extent that it has a separate existence from black America, is susceptible to the idea that people of other races and ethnicities are to blame for the decay they have witnessed in their community and across the United States. This susceptibility explains the attraction of many to the fantasy, promoted by Donald Trump, that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States, and therefore was not legitimately president; Trump exploited this falsehood to reach a neglected and credulous constituency, which was to form the base that carried him to the White House.
But, I remind myself: we all have a tendency to be prejudiced. In my summing up, have I been true to the values of the the United States Constitution, that all men are created equal” Have I been true to the values expressed in Burns’s song, A Man’s a Man for a That?
You must judge for yourself.
|What though on hamely fare we dine, [homely]
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that; [coarse, homespun cloth]
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; [Give]
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
Is king o’ men for a’ that.