John McWhorter: People are too quick to categorize everything President Trump says about African-American communities as racist
If Trump has ideas on how to combat Chicago's violence, we should hear him out, he writes
Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “Words on the Move.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
President Trump hasn’t just let his inaugural speech comment about “carnage” in America – as in violence in poor black communities, which is what he meant – stand as a random potshot designed to rile up his base. This week, he tweeted that if Chicago can’t get control of its murder rate – 268 people shot so far just this month, 47 killed – then he may bring in federal assistance.
One thing I’m not is a Trump fan. One thing I am, though, is urgently concerned with the fate of poor black communities. In that, Trump’s intention here brings to mind a conversation I had with Brown University economist Glenn Loury on the videochat series Bloggingheads.
Last year, he and I speculated that if Trump made an offer to black America to directly address the problems of poor black communities, then no matter how constructive his offer was, the black punditocracy’s “smart” take would be to reject Trump’s offer because he is Republican and seems less than pure of racist sentiments in his private person.
Sadly, this prediction has been borne out. The theme is logical contradictions.
When Trump has called attention to the state of poor black communities, focusing on the level of violence their residents must live with daily, the concerned thinker has typically classified it as an insult to black people. Yet these are the same people who, on a different day, assail America for turning a blind eye to the problems of poor black Americans.
Trump is called a racist to say of black communities that “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs.” He is surely painting with a broad brush, but he should not be dismissed as a racist because he lacks subtlety. After all, the media urgently covers the anti-gang activities of figures like Father Michael Pfleger, a white pastor from Chicago, implying that people like him are battling a problem that is quite real.
Or, Trump is supposedly a racist to talk of the “carnage” in places like Chicago, but then it is considered enlightened wisdom to assail the mainstream media for caring more about the disappearance of white people like Natalee Holloway than of the legions of black people killed by rarely-apprehended assailants year after year.
If America is to be indicted for not caring about black people killing one another, then why is it racist and dismissible when Trump says that we need to do something about black people killing one another?
It’s also not as simple as just saying that these communities need jobs as Jesse Jackson said in a Twitter response to Trump’s call for federal action in Chicago. However, anyone familiar with poor communities in America these days knows that the reason guys are shooting each other over sneakers is not only because they could not find gainful, legal employment.
There is more to the story. Even authoritative, sympathetic scholars’ work shows that more than a few of these guys are tempted to the streets by the inadequacy of schooling, the availability of work on the black market selling drugs, and how easy it is to have a gun.
Parts of William Julius Wilson’s “When Work Disappears” show such men turning down available work, for example. Beware also the op-ed page truism that black male unemployment is due to factory jobs moving overseas. The same men’s unemployment rates went down and stayed down even in cities where factory jobs did not disappear in this way.
Read classic works on inner city lives such as sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day” or Alice Goffman’s “On the Run,” and any sense that men in these communities were all but barred from legal work falls to pieces. The reality is, as so often, much more complicated.
But we are not to think this way. Instead, there have been chin-scratching analyses of the term inner city, implying that Trump is wrong to even consider there to exist such settings. We are to think of the shooting death by white cops of Laquan McDonald – itself absolutely appalling – as somehow the “real” story in Chicago despite that the relatives of the 762 people killed in Chicago last year surely found the loss of their loved ones equally appalling.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The people reacting to Trump’s statements in this way see themselves as agitating in poor black people’s favor, but their actual positions all point to something somewhat different: patrolling Trump and the rest of America for racist sentiments. That patrol can feel like the quintessence of helping people, but it is quite often less relevant to actually helping people in their actual lives.
I have no idea whether Trump, as unreflective and uninformed a soul he is, will really be able to have an effect on poor black communities. However, given that we can’t pry this man out of the White House for the time being, we need to get over this impulse to go into denial mode about black communities’ problems just because the person mentioning them isn’t a paragon of racial sensitivity.
OK – he says “the African-Americans” instead of “African Americans” and dissed John Lewis. Disgusting, all of it. But, unfortunately, this man has his hands on the levers of power for a while, and it’s time to be pragmatic.
Trump’s plan could be an overly punitive hot mess, in which case we shall resist. But suppose it isn’t? We can’t shut our ears to any idea just because Trump lacks manners.
Old-time civil rights leaders didn’t have the luxury of requiring the presidents they dealt with to act as maximally free of racist sentiment as possible, and yet they got a lot done.
It’s time for us to walk in their footsteps in a realer way than just holding panels on Martin Luther King Day. If Trump has some plans to lessen the “carnage,” let’s hear him out. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.