Susan Estrich - And he thinks he is not a racist

  • Published in Columns

"S—-hole countries": I didn't say it; the president did. And it wasn't even in some closed-door meeting with aides who leaked the quote to the press. He said it in a meeting with congressional leaders. If you parse his tweets, he goes on the attack toward anyone reporting what he said, but never quite fully denies it. And Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator who confirmed the reports, is as trustworthy a second or third or fourth source for these stories as you can find.

The president has previously opined that Haitians all have AIDS, just as he opined that Mexicans were rapists. The difference between the "s—-hole" countries and a place such as Norway, whose citizens the president said he would prefer, is that the former are predominantly black and the latter is almost all (and no doubt in Donald Trump's mind, very) white.

But ask the president if he's a racist and he'll say no. Call him one and he'll call you a liar. And unlike many other commentators, who say they don't know what's in his heart, I believe he actually believes himself. He doesn't think he is a racist. He signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Day declaration. He posed with Jesse Jackson. Heck, he probably has black friends and wishes there were more qualified black Republicans he could appoint. Too bad for him that the majority of black Americans are Democrats.

Of course, when you look at what he does, it's another story. In business, his company was sued for racial profiling in housing. In office, he retweets white supremacists. In August, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, he suggested the white supremacists were also victims. His advisers recoil and tell the press they're recoiling. Trump sends angry tweets.

For one thing, it's clear that whatever he thinks, Trump's words belittle him and his office in the eyes of Americans and the world. Sure, his hardcore base may be saying "Right on," but they wouldn't actually say the vile things he said if they were among strangers, much less if they were at a meeting in the White House. Trump has balked at being held to "presidential" standards, saying that only he can define what is presidential. Not so. Racial vulgarisms have never been presidential. It's not a partisan issue, although that is always this president's defense. You won't find too many Republicans defending him today, and there is a reason for that. Everyone knows what he said, and everyone knows it's completely indefensible.

But it's worse than that. Bias can take two forms. In many ways, the conscious kind is easier. Think George Wallace, if you're old enough, though he ultimately denied his racism. Jim Crow laws were racist. Standing at the schoolhouse door to block black schoolchildren was racist. No one truly pretended otherwise, even if they did use the "fig leaf" of "states' rights." Of course, Trump hasn't stood in any schoolhouse doors. And even if his approach to immigration does has aspects reminiscent of Jim Crow (but made international), the president would certainly never acknowledge that. He doesn't think of himself as a racist. He just thinks like one. It's unconscious discrimination, unconscious racism, and in many ways it is the most pernicious kind, because its practitioners claim to be egalitarian, and they balk when you suggest otherwise.

Judging a person or nation by skin color is racist. Judging an individual based on stereotypes that may not apply to him or her, even if those stereotypes are based in statistics, is also racist. It is not true, as a matter of fact, that all Haitians have AIDS. And even if more Haitians have AIDS than Norwegians, it's still racist to prejudge any individual Haitian based on numbers that have nothing to do with him or her. Which is, of course, precisely what Trump was proposing our government do.

Of course, Trump could have used better language in service of the same goal. He could have said: "We need to have a system that rewards merit and education" or other qualifications, and even though more Norwegians might qualify than Haitians — which might lead us to be concerned about the unspoken racial implications — he wouldn't be making headlines today. Instead, he resorted to gross generalizations and vulgarities, which suggests that maybe his bias is not quite so unconscious at all, and that people are right when they say he is not the president of all the people. No modern president has done as much as Trump has to earn the ugly label of racist.

(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)