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Trump’s racist tweets and the ‘politics of distraction’

President Trump’s attacks on women of color in the House have launched fierce debate about whether his meaning was racist. There is no doubt, though, that his words echo threats and insults that have been lobbed against perceived outsiders in America for generations. To explore the painful history, William Brangham talks to the University of Minnesota’s Erika Lee and UC-Berkeley’s Ian Haney Lopez, the author of "Merge Left."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president's criticisms this week singling out four members of Congress, all women of color, has set off a fierce debate about whether or not the president's words were racist.

    As William Brangham reports, the president's comments don't exist in a vacuum.

  • William Brangham:

    Last night on the floor of the House of Representatives, an uproar broke out when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats wanted to pass a resolution specifically calling the president's attack racist.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    Join us in condemning the president's racist tweets.

  • Man:

    Our rules of order and decency were broken today.

  • Man:

    I know racism when I see it.

  • Man:

    This ridiculous slander does a disservice to our nation and the American people.

  • William Brangham:

    After all the debate, in the end, the House did vote to condemn the president's tweets. It was a vote almost entirely along partisan lines. Four Republicans and one independent joined the Democrats.

    Now, we're not here to debate whether or not the president's words were racist. Instead, we want to explore how those tweets and the ferocious reaction to them are part of a long history of what one of my guests calls the racial theater of American politics.

    Joining me now is Erika Lee. She's the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and she's writing a book on the history of xenophobia in America. And Ian Haney Lopez is a professor of public law at U.C. Berkeley who studies coded racial language in America. He's the author of "Dog Whistle Politics."

    Welcome to you both, and thank you for being here.

    Ian Haney Lopez, to you first.

    You're the one I was quoting about this racial theater in American politics. I wonder if you could just help us zoom out a little bit from this week's controversy and help us explain how this theater plays out. What does this play look like?

  • Ian Haney Lopez:

    Here's the way the play works.

    It's — what I call dog whistle politics is the use of coded racial appeals in politics, but coded racial appeals, there's a lot going on. Act one of the play, some politician decides to gin up controversy by pushing a racial idea or meme into the conversation, but doing so through a coded term that allows plausible deniability.

    So think of the phrase, "Go back where you came from." Some people see it as racist. Other people say this doesn't have to do with race at all. Right?

    Or think criminal and illegal aliens, or sanctuary cities, or, contrary-wise, think, make America great again, or real Americans, or the American heartland

    Act two, the person who is dog whistling about race comes forward and exercises the plausible deniability of these terms and says, hey, me? I didn't say anything about race, or, as Donald Trump tweeted, "I don't have a racist bone in my body."

    Act three, turn around and say, but you know who is talking about race? It's my critics. My critics have accused me of being a racist. And since I'm not a racist, they're the real racists, because they are falsely smearing me with this awful charge of being a racist.

    And that's the basic drama of this week in American politics.

  • William Brangham:

    Erika, let's — sticking with that metaphor for a moment, let's go back to act one, as Ian Haney Lopez lays it out.

    The president said, go back to your home country, fix things there, leave this country.

    I know your scholarship has looked at how that is part of the coded language that has evolved over time. Can you explain a little bit of the history of that type of terminology?

  • Erika Lee:

    Sure. And it's not even that coded. Literally get out of your of this country is quite an insult and quite a charge.

    And this has ranged throughout our history from more softball questions such as, where are you from? No, where are you really from? Sort of a symbol that the person is not really a full American or really belongs here.

    But go back has also literally been attached to violent campaigns of mass deportation. So, this is both coded language, but also connected to a much longer history that is violent, that is xenophobic, and that has always been a form of racism in the United States.

    There's this idea that — especially with immigrants, that we should be grateful to have been let into the United States, and because of this gift of migration, that then we should blindly and follow all of the policies of the adopted homeland.

    And that, to be sure, is not American.

  • William Brangham:

    Ian Haney Lopez, you were touching before on this issue that, if you use coded language, it allows you a sort of plausible deniability, that you can say, I didn't mention anyone's skin color. I didn't mention their race. So why are you calling me a racist?

    I take it this, too, is not a new phenomenon.

  • Ian Haney Lopez:

    It's not a new phenomenon.

    And, well, I want to make a distinction here. We're talking about two different things that are connected, but we ought to see that they're two different things.

    One is the dynamic in which one person says to another, go back where you came from. And I have had that happen to me. I think many people in the United States have had that happen to them. That's one phenomena.

    The other is where some of the most powerful people in the country, and in particular politicians, seek to exploit racial divisions, seek to stoke racial acrimony. And they're being combined here.

  • William Brangham:

    Erika Lee, we also saw something of a turning of the tables here this week, where the president said, I'm not the racist, those people who are accusing me of racism are the racists.

    It reminded me very much of a moment my colleague Yamiche Alcindor had earlier this year where she asked the president a question about why his policies seem to echo so strongly with white nationalists. He turned the tables on her and said the exact same thing.

  • President Donald Trump:

    That's such a racist question, honestly. I mean, I know you have it written down and you're going to tell me — let me tell you, that's a racist question.

  • William Brangham:

    I take it that too, that turning of the tables, is not a new thing.

  • Erika Lee:

    It's not a new thing. But it has become especially effective in the post-civil rights era.

    It was much more accepting to be explicitly racist and to have legal discrimination, obviously, and to have those signs, "No Jews allowed, "No Chinese allowed, "No Mexicans allowed," et cetera.

    But, of course, after the civil rights movement, explicit racism, explicit discriminatory — was illegal. Explicit racism fell out of favor. And so we have become much more adept at colorblind racism, at dog whistle politics, about talking about race without using explicitly racial language.

    So it's — it's not new, but it has become a new way and a very effective way in the post-civil rights era, and I would say in the Obama and post-Obama America, to denigrate others, to insult them, to treat them as unequal, to justify inequality without using the old racial labels.

  • William Brangham:

    Ian Haney Lopez, the president apparently contacted a reporter today and said to him that he was happy with the way this debate went forward this week, and thought it was a good thing.

    And I'm curious, do you see any good news in this, in the way that this is unfolded, in the conversations that are happening around this?

  • Ian Haney Lopez:

    I don't see particular good news in this.

    I see a very treacherous moment for the American people, for our society, for our democracy. And here's what's so treacherous.

    We have a president who benefits — who sees himself benefiting from social division and acrimony. And that's what he's stirred this week. And I think that's why he's happy with the result.

    When we have a huge outraged conversation in this country, is Trump, and, by extension, the millions of our fellow citizens who love him, is Trump racist, are they somehow racist, are people of color somehow their enemy, are people of color threatened by them, that sort of conversation about racial division is what Trump wants. It's the way he benefits.

    And what we have then is, we have a political leader who, for his own benefit and for the benefit of his party, sees himself as leading the country further into division and hatred and violence.

    And yet, at the very moment that this is so treacherous, it's also an opportunity, because President Trump is making clear, through his actions, a dynamic that has actually plagued our country for the last 50 years since the civil rights movement.

  • William Brangham:

    Erika Lee, lastly to you, how would you like to see us try to bridge this chasm, to move through this and try to heal this divide?

  • Erika Lee:

    I think that one of the important aspects is to understand that this goes beyond the 2020 elections, that the remarks by the president and the division that it has caused points to a much larger, deeper problem in the United States, a problem that is about division. It's about race, and it's about the future of the United States.

    And I do agree that this — these politics of distraction and these politics of division have driven us away from the actual business of governing.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Erika Lee and Ian Haney Lopez, thank you both very much.

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