Racism Is Not a Synonym for Hatred: Or, Why Rand Paul’s Comments Fall Flat

Racism Is Not a Synonym for Hatred: Or, Why Rand Paul’s Comments Fall Flat January 18, 2018

In the wake of the uproar over Trump’s demeaning comments about Haiti and several other non-white countries, Rand Paul had this to say about Trump’s views:

“I know personally about his feelings toward Haiti and Central America because when I was not a candidate for president and he wasn’t a candidate for president I went down there on a medical mission trip,” he explained, “I did about 200 cataract surgeries with a group of surgeons in Haiti, and the same in Central America.”

“And when we asked Donald J. Trump as a private citizen to support those trips,” he continued, “he was a large financial backer of both medical mission trips, so I think it’s unfair to sort of draw conclusions from a remark that I think, wasn’t constructive is the least we can say, and I think it’s unfair to all of a sudden paint him as ‘oh well he’s a racist,’ when I know for a fact that he cares very deeply for the people of Haiti because he helped finance a trip where they were able to get vision back for 200 people in Haiti.”

Look! A magic formula for turning racists into not-racists! All they have to do is donate to charities doing work in black and brown countries!

Except that that’s not actually how any of this works. At all.

People give money to charities for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they do it to look good, for the praise and acclaim they get. Sometimes they do it for the tax write-off. And yes, sometimes they do it because they genuinely want to help people—but even that does not make a person not racist.

It is possible for a person to want to help people in a marginalized group and simultaneously believe that the people in that group are less intelligent and less capable than members of their own group. In fact, that belief itself can motivate such charitable giving!

Have you ever heard of the “white man’s burden”?

In the image above, published in Judge in 1899, the U.S. and Great Britain carry baskets laden with colonized people of color over the stones of superstition, ignorance, vice, and barbarism, up a hill to the waiting arms of “civilization.” In a poem published the same year that coined the term “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling urged the U.S. to follow Great Britain’s lead and take up the burden of civilizing the native peoples of the Philippines—“Half devil and half child”—which the U.S. had just colonized by means of a bloody and brutal war that had taken hundreds of thousands of lives. For their own good, of course.

That, after all, was the argument—that U.S. and Great Britain engaged in bloody colonial campaigns to help uplift and save “savage” peoples. I am not suggesting that medical missions to Haiti are the same thing (though it is important to make sure medical missions and other charitable efforts actually help a country, rather than furthering their problems, as can happen when they are done badly or irresponsibly). Instead, my intent is to note that one can be horrifically racist and still believe (or at least claim) that one actually wants to help and uplift the people they are horrifically racist against.

It’s a sort of paternalistic racism, if you will.

Have you ever heard the phrase “kill the Indian and save the man”? The idea was that if we could strip Native American children of their culture and beliefs, and by so doing “civilize” them, we could save them—from themselves, from their people, from their “savage” cultures. At the time, this was considered the compassionate solution. It was the solution put forward by reformers! Others argued that this was simply not possible and that extermination was the only true solution to the Native American “problem.”

It was the reformers, then, who ripped Native American children from their families, transported them to boarding schools on the other side of the country, and brought us before and after pictures like this:

See, wasn’t that nice of them? They’ve “civilized” these three “savages.” Yes, and robbed them of their culture—the children in these boarding schools were not allowed to speak their native language, or practice their religions or traditions. And yet to all appearances the people who pioneered these boarding schools genuinely believed that what they were doing was best for these children. They thought that they were doing these children a favor, presenting them with the opportunity to lead “civilized” and productive lives.

This is why we must get past the idea that racism is synonymous with hate. Historically, racism has generally been enmeshed in ideas about superiority and inferiority, not a personal hate. I’ve read sermons by Southern pastors in the 1940s who claimed up and down that while they supported segregated schools, Jim Crow laws, and bans on interracial marriage, they weren’t racist, they couldn’t be racist, because Uncle Charles and Aunt Bertha were black and had always been the dearest friends and helpers to their families, and there was no one they respected more.

In fact, many slave-owners in the antebellum South absolutely claimed that they cared deeply for the African Americans they enslaved. Some of these individuals may have said this as a cover, to defend their horrific practice of human chattel slavery to critics in the North. Many of them, though, likely believed their own paternalistic rhetoric.

Have a look at this, written by George Fitzhugh in 1857:

The Negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The Negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays.

White men, with so much of license and liberty, would die of ennui, but Negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour, and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ’Tis happiness in itself — and results from contentment with the present, and confident assurance of the future.

We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so, for whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the Negro because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty, and not a single right.

Notice the comparison Fitzhugh makes between blacks and whites—that white men would die of ennui if they had the license and freedom of slaves. Many of the arguments made by men like Fitzhugh—that they cared for their slaves, and that blacks were happiest in slavery—rested on a claim that physical and intellectual differences between blacks and whites rendered freedom untenable for blacks, who would prove unable to care for themselves and sink back into the “savagery” of Africa.

Even those who didn’t give as much credence to the idea of innate differences argued that African slaves in the U.S. needed additional generations of “civilizing” before they would have shed enough of their “savage” cultural baggage to be able to function well in a civilized country. Some argued that being a slave in a civilized country was better than being free in a barbarous, “savage” place like Africa—that really, they should be grateful, and that we’d done them a favor by bringing them here. Others saw slavery as a way of “civilizing” and “improving” their race, preparing them for eventual freedom, when they would be at long last ready.

Perhaps our understanding of what it means to be racist was reset by the Holocaust. Hitler, after all, didn’t set out to “improve” the Jews or engage in racial uplift. Unlike antebellum slave-holders and turn of the century advocates of Native American boarding houses, he didn’t claim to have the best interests of the Jewish people in mind. Instead, he fomented hatred, making the Jews a scapegoat for all of Germany’s problems.

And then came the civil rights movement, with its accompanying images of angry, yelling white people in the U.S. South. And that became what racism was—hatred. Except that if you had actually talked to those white people, I very much suspect that most of them would have said they didn’t hate black people—not at all! I very much suspect that many of them would have said—and some of them actually believed—that segregation was better off for everyone—including black people.

Part of the problem we’re having in this country right now is that a large segment of the population—including individuals like Rand Paul—define racism as hatred. Trump, after all, would not have donated to a medical mission to Haiti if he hated Haitians, therefore he is not racist. But this severely limited definition of racism would have rendered us incapable of grappling with the arguments of antebellum slave-holders, or turn of the century advocates for Native American boarding schools, and that should give us pause.

How we understand words matters.

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