The almost daily outrages of the Trump era have convinced a growing number of Americans to pay attention to racial inequality. A majority now believe that African-Americans do not currently enjoy equal opportunity or fair treatment and agree that the country must do more to guarantee equality. It’s hardly surprising that people of color believe that racism remains a serious problem, but the most dramatic Trump-era change has been in the attitudes of white Democrats. In 2014 a slim majority of 57% agreed that “the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights”; in 2017 80% did. Ta-Nehisi Coates sums it up well: “the triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the spectacle of an American president succeeding. . . .in spite of his racism and possibly because of it.” This awakening of anti-racist sentiment is welcome news, but there is a risk in a conception of racism that takes the spectacle of Trump’s flamboyant bigotry as its inspiration. The conspicuous examples of prejudice that Trump both creates and inspires in others are dramatic and therefore highly salient, but they are not characteristic of contemporary racial disadvantage. They have become parts of a compelling but misleading narrative about the nature of racism and the best ways of opposing it.
To be blunt, racism is not typically dramatic and ostentatious. It is most often banal—a mundane, omnipresent fact of life that is embedded in the daily habits and routines of our society. Despite the rhetoric that likens prejudice to a violent assault, racism is, in its most consequential form, more like gravity—something so routine it barely registers, but which affects everything. Racial injustice is perpetuated, not by monsters devoted to atrocity but by typical people doing typical things, each one a small part of a larger machine that grinds on heedless of moral consequences. To say that racism is banal is not to say that it is without profound moral significance. Instead, it is to say that the immorality of racism lies not in discrete malice or emblematic vicious acts, but in routinized cruelty, indifference and, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt put it in another context, a failure or refusal to think.
For example, black or Latino men are more likely to be stopped by police during routine neighborhood patrols. The overwhelming majority of these stops are inconsequential, but the cumulative effect is a sustained insult and impediment to the freedom of movement that law-abiding people have a right to expect. These banal forms of bigotry only occasionally cause more dramatic injuries: Because blacks and Latinos have a greater number of tense encounters with police, they are necessarily more likely to experience more of the encounters that go wrong and end in violence. It is these encounters that we hear about in the news, and many people, understandably, suspect that the officers involved in these encounters are abusive bigots, malevolent sadists, monsters. But often the tragedies are a consequence of bad luck or poor judgment rather than malice. Accordingly, prosecutors and grand juries often decline to indict the officers involved or, if they do indict, fail to convict. The injustice in these cases is often hard to pin down to an individual: The bias is diffuse, it lies in the daily patterns of policing, in the impoverished and segregated neighborhoods that are the context of those patterns and in the constricted opportunities for a dignified and meaningful life that many people living in those neighborhoods face.
This description may seem unsatisfying: Blaming “society” for an injustice can seem like a cop-out. But blaming an individual for a collective or systemic evil is the essence of scapegoating. Herein lies the challenge and risk of today’s Trump-inspired recognition of racism. Trump’s Vaudevillian bigotry is contrived performance, designed to provoke. It is reckless in that is stirs up latent racial resentment and hatred that a responsible leader would seek to contain, but it is no more representative of our nation’s deep and unresolved racial problems than a carnival sideshow barker’s sales pitch is of whatever sleazy entertainment he is hawking. The root causes of most racial injustice do not involve loud, crass, and conspicuous bigots like Trump. But, like a carnival barker, Trump is hard to ignore. He provides a compelling focus for the anger, anxiety, and frustration of people of color and white liberals, inspiring heroic fantasies of dramatic battles in which good anti-racists can vanquish vile, vulgar, and corrupt bigots.
The paradigm for this narrative of an epic struggle against bigotry is, of course, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. Here, Trump is a tech era Lester Maddox and his detractors are 21st-century Freedom Riders. This is a comforting story because we know—or think we know—how it ends and what the moral is: After great effort and personal sacrifice, bigotry will be vanquished and the transition from racism to racial justice will blend seamlessly into a national story of moral progress. The story has deep cultural resonance. It makes our history of racism redemptive in a biblical sense. Triumph over racism involves the defeat or conversion of evildoers, both of which offer cathartic release: either retribution against the truly recalcitrant or reconciliation with those who come to see the error of their ways and repent their sins. Most importantly of all, those who have suffered racist contempt, torment, and deprivation have done so for a reason—their suffering has an intelligible cause and an ultimate purpose; it is both understandable and redeemed by the ultimate triumph of moral truth.
By contrast, a banal racism doesn’t fit this narrative of redeemed suffering. To be sure, there are evildoers, but the most vile don’t necessarily do the greatest harm so exposing and defeating them won’t necessarily change much. The worst aspects of the system are embedded in routines of institutionalized cruelty and callousness, perpetuated by people acting out of rational self-interest or just following orders. The interchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in the June 27 debate of Democratic Presidential hopefuls gave us a glimpse of this banal form of racism and the mistake of trying to place it in the heroic social justice epic. When Harris confronted Biden about his opposition to busing, she placed herself in the narrative as a classic aggrieved victim of injustice seeking retribution or demanding repentance: that little girl was me. Biden was left to sputter: What I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education—perhaps a relevant distinction in principle but utterly tone deaf to the drama of the moment.
Even though it resonated, Harris’s attack was oddly off the mark because by the late 1970s, when Biden opposed desegregation, school segregation had become banal. Massive resistance was over, there were no more red-faced bigots insisting on segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. Instead, there was only the routine administration of neighborhood school assignment, the normal patterns of residential settlement, the typical inequities of school funding, the daily, silent customs and assumptions that kept the races apart in social practice, even if they were allowed to mix in constitutional theory. Biden’s role in all of this wasn’t exactly heroic, but in terms of individual culpability, he was no worse than the untold millions of parents who moved or chose where to settle based on the racial make-up of the public schools, fled neighborhoods when the non-white population got too large for comfort and for stable property values, or turned to private schools to avoid “troubled” urban ones. In fact, his opposition to busing was a perfect reflection of the taken-for-granted racial aversion that has been part of American social life since the first unfortunate African set foot on North American soil. What had begun as an epic struggle against ostentatious white supremacists had become a question of administrative procedures, jurisdictional conflicts, economic incentives, and the cumulative effect of unspoken biases. It was a story of the quiet, mundane, unthinking prejudice of typical people—not the viciousness of dramatic villains.
The banality of racism is a hard truth, harder, in some ways, even than the idea of racism as intractable but ultimately discrete and knowable, an idea advanced by the pathbreaking legal scholar and civil rights activist Derrick Bell or, more recently, by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It denies us not only the catharsis of redemption but even the catharsis of recognition: We cannot look at Donald Trump or even George Wallace or Lester Maddox and say a ha—there is the face of my enemy and the author of my suffering. The notion of banality suggests that suffering may have no author, no meaning, and no greater purpose—it is just suffering, nothing more.
But there is also a sense in which understanding bigotry as banal can give us renewed hope and guide us toward more effective avenues of social change. Every struggle against racism is not an epic battle with clear victories and defeats; most involve mundane changes and careful reforms. To return to an issue at the heart of both criminal justice and busing, neighborhood segregation is not just a consequence of racial hatred and contempt, although it is that; it is also a response to financial incentives—the desire for stable property values and good schools. Public policy can change these incentives. We may never understand the motivations of bigots, nor are we likely to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing them decisively beaten or made to repent the error of their ways. But we don’t need to understand or reverse the logic of racism in order to make meaningful improvements and perhaps even hasten the glorious day when racism will truly be a thing of the past. Indeed, if racism is banal, there may be no underlying logic or reasons to understand. Instead, racism is a cultural artifact that emerged as a byproduct of many different circumstances and projects and eventually took on a grubby and sordid life of its own. Like any cultural custom, it can also fall into disuse and disrepute and it will do so according to the same kind of chaotic historical cultural process that created it. Moral narrative will play a role here, and likely a very important one. But it will not help us to understand racism nor bring about its end—it will just be one of many contributing factors. It is just as likely that morally ambiguous, unpredictable, or fundamentally amoral forces such as art, fashion, and social etiquette will also play a role.
With a conspicuous racist occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and white supremacy on the rise, this may seem an especially inopportune time for such an idea. Surely now an epic struggle, a decisive battle, is unavoidable. Perhaps. But there is another lesson to be taken from recent events. A banal-but-powerful form of bigotry comes into view whenever a baseline assumption of white superiority is challenged. One sees it in relatively trivial forms when iconic heroes and heroines are cast as people of color in films: Consider the bizarre uproar over a black Little Mermaid in the latest Disney confection or over a black stormtrooper in the latest Star Wars films. (There is of course something similar to be said with respect to sex; some of the same folks were apoplectic over a female Jedi Knight.) One sees it in a more consequential form in a backlash to Barack Obama’s Presidency, which propelled Trump—the anti-Obama—to power. What has been for many a comforting assurance of racial status is called into question when positions and roles of prestige once exclusive to whites are occupied by people of other races. Perhaps more than anything else, Trump’s genius has been to tap into this inarticulable but quite potent sense of racial anxiety. But this doesn’t suggest that all of even Trump’s most committed supporters are irredeemable bigots; it suggests instead that many are typical Americans imbibing the banal, unremarkable racism that runs through American culture like capillaries. The best way to counteract their prejudices may not be to defeat them or compel them to repent, but to nudge them away from their biases and toward their better selves.