Guest Post! Exploring the Racism of the Presidents of the United States

In an effort to expand the reach of the blog, I will now be adding occasional guest posts on thought-provoking topics and opening them up for comment. To start this effort off, the following post will discuss an angle on the concept of racism and the presidency that I personally had never really delved into before. Specifically, is President Trump a uniquely racist president, or has racism been exemplified by his most recent predecessors? The guest contributor is Brandon Hunter.

Brandon Hunter is a PhD candidate in Anthropology. His work examines the relationship between law, labor, and politics in a range of settings, from the United States to Mexico.


Among the mountain of assertions that Trump represents a dramatic break with the norms of the past is the claim that Trump is a uniquely racist president. The argument goes something like this: Rather than using the standard racist dog whistles that have defined American politics after the Civil Rights Era, Trump uses overtly racist signals to rile up his base of angry, racist, whites. The evidence for this is abundant, from Trump’s initial campaign announcement speech in which he claimed “some” Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, to the assertion that a federal judge was disqualified from hearing a case because of his Mexican background, to his more recent use of “shit-hole” to describe the African and Latin American countries of [Temporary Protected Status] TPS recipients. I don't necessarily disagree that as a matter of performance Trump deploys a kind of racism that’s unique to post-Civil Rights presidents, and certainly stands far apart from his predecessor. But what’s bothered me about this way of framing Trump is that it couples together racist performance with racist policy, as if to say that once Trump is out of office some kind of non-racist order will be restored.

That kind of thinking tends to reinforce what That kind of thinking tends to reinforce what Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists” (2017) or what others have described as institutionalized racism. For these authors racism is not just the outward expression of prejudice or hate on the basis of race, but is the systemic ways in which some groups are advantaged over others through the racism’s legacy into today. In this understanding of racism, the damage of racism doesn’t require an overt expression of racist feelings, but instead happens in the day-to-day race neutral world. This is because the removal of de jure racist policy was not enough to undo racism, but instead left the economic and political structures in place that advantage whites over people of color. The result is that whites can pass any “race neutral” law and it will have a racist effect. Attempts to correct this kind of racism have been difficult. Affirmative action is the most common policy, but in the post-Civil Rights era litigators attempted to use disparate impact analysis to get at race neutral policy that produced a racist effect. The Supreme Court pushed back against this framing in the 1976 case of Washington v. Davis, and since then has made similar moves to strike down affirmative action policy to the extent it is used to correct past instances of racism.

All this is to say that the most pernicious parts of our country’s struggle with racism happen in those instances where it doesn’t look like racism at all---where it just looks like race-neutral policy being carried out. From mass incarceration, to the staggering inequalities around race and wealth, when the system operates “normally” it produces a racist effect. This is what makes the focus on Trump’s language especially frustrating, since it tends to draw attention to the things that comes out of his mouth that are racist, and not to the structures in place that make racism so damaging. If Trump were a “normal” Republican president, he’d still be a racist president. Indeed, Obama’s failure to correct the mistakes of racism in any serious way also makes his legacy around racial justice problematic, even if symbolically we can all acknowledge the significance of the first black President. What critical race theorists remind us with their focus on systems, is that the symbolic gestures towards a less racist world don’t mean much if they’re not backed up with policy to correct our racist past. In this sense they contend that Civil Rights didn’t go far enough, and even more importantly, they point out that Nixon, Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton quickly undid much of the accomplishments achieved during the Civil Rights era.

All this is to say, better to focus on how Trump is making racist policy versus saying racist things. He can blabber all he wants, but at the end of the day, it’s about the material effect he has on people, not the symbolic.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.