It wasn’t all that long ago that top U.S. journalists seemed most concerned with explaining why the decision by tens of millions of Americans to vote for Donald Trump made them neither racists nor bigots, despite Trump’s penchant for open bigotry, which began with the launching of his presidential campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as mostly rapists and murderers. That was after he spent years as the most prominent proponent of the bigoted birther-ism conspiracy theory.
A tweet by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza shortly after Trump’s victory in November was indicative of much of the media’s focus:
“There is nothing more maddening — and counterproductive — to me than saying that Trump’s 59 million votes were all racist. Ridiculous.”
There seemed to be a concerted effort to explain the complexity of their decision-making and to convince readers, viewers, and listeners that these were all good people forced to make a difficult decision, supposedly after decades of being ignored by the media and both major political parties. They were struggling, hurting people so desperate for a lifeline that they backed Trump, not because of his bigotry but because they saw no other options. The reporting left the impression that their pain made it impossible for them to have made any other choice.
That focus—to excuse or downplay the potential harm done by the choices non-racist Trump voters were making—seems more disturbing by the day as we watch Trump begin to fulfill the predictions about some of his worst tendencies. That some or most of Trump’s supporters are neither racist nor bigoted matters little to the scores of mostly brown Americans and immigrants being hurt by his policies, most prominently his immigration executive order, which has been put on hold by federal courts but not before it caused chaos around the world and made life more difficult for tens of thousands of legal and undocumented American citizens and residents.
What difference would it make to those being harmed if most of Trump’s supporters were more like David Duke than the proverbial struggling coal miner in West Virginia? None. That good people essentially underwrote the struggles these people currently face, and likely will for the next four years, by backing Trump is no balm for their wounds.
The tens of thousands of people hurt by Trump’s immigration executive order—the five-year-old separated from his mother; the Iraqi interpreter treated like a criminal; the Indiana University professor barred from his own country; the green card holders treated like suspected terrorists; the people who feel terrorized because they might be targeted next—don’t much care what percentage of Trump supporters were personally racist. They care more about the policies of a man who spoke openly during the campaign about wanting to enact a Muslim ban.
Race isn’t frequently discussed in conversations about journalistic ethics. But it should be. That so many in the media seem incapable of understanding—or even wanting to understand—the nuance of race should become one of the industry’s top ethical concerns. It can’t just be seen as a business imperative, or making life inside newsrooms more comfortable for people of color, or finding ways to get a greater variety of voices on the radio, TV, or in print. It goes to the heart of what we do.
There is little clear-cut about race. It is a fallacy to believe there are good people in one camp and racists in another. Major policies affecting minority groups are often enacted and supported by a majority who either don’t care enough about avoiding harm or will support leaders despite their bigotry for other seemingly worthwhile reasons, like the remote chance that a mothballed steel mill might be revived in a town desperate for the kinds of jobs that have long disappeared.
The distinction is an important one, because it has manifested itself in a variety of ways throughout American history. Overt racism and purposeful bigotry often make for seemingly clarifying headlines— “White supremacist found guilty in Charleston church massacre—that, more often than we’d like to admit, obscure greater threats. A Dylann Roof, motivated by the kind of animus that’s easily identified as racism and bigotry, can murder nine people. But a gaggle of good people unaware of the subtler tentacles of race can cause even greater harm. When our coverage fails to reflect that complex reality, we unwittingly become part of the problem.