What To Do With Trump Voters?
I posted a short twitter essay on this yesterday, and it got some interesting reactions, so I thought I’d post a (slightly) more fleshed out version here.
Here’s the problem: many Trump voters are racist, and in a variety of ways. There are the more subtle forms, the subconscious racism alongside benefitting from/maintaining/seeking to exacerbate institutional forms of racial dominance. And then there’s the explicit stuff, in terms of actively discriminating, maintaining and using stereotypes, and advocating policy rooted in stereotypes of other groups.
That’s all terrible. And there’s a temptation (I think a compelling one in many ways) to just write these people off. And in terms of the morality of it, there are compelling arguments in both directions: on one hand, such racists are real people who deserve respect and engagement; on the other hand, if someone is saying or doing something you find morally heinous (particularly regarding you and your identity), I take the point you’re no longer obligated to engage them.
For now, let’s bracket the moral question of distinguishing between how we engage Trump—who only deserves scorn—and how we engage racist Trump voters. Those voters, again, might well also deserve only scorn, but I at least am personally convinced, as a fellow white dude, that I’m obligated to engage them. However, I think that is very specific to my positionality, and I’m super uncomfortable making any broader moral claims about how anyone else is so obligated, except to say that other white straight non-Muslim goyim men like me are probably similarly obligated.
Yet besides the moral question is the practical question. That’s a big damn part of our electorate, and getting rid of that much racism would solve some serious social problems. Of course the personal racism is both empirically and theoretically distinct from the subconscious and institutional forms of racism, but they’re also not completely distinct. But here’s the issue: very few people are going to have the kinds of conversion experiences necessary to recognize the many forms of and real moral and political problems of racism. Don’t get me wrong: I think that should be the major goal, mostly because it’s better both politically and morally. But putting all our chips on Trump voters suddenly finding compelling all the experimental data on racism within job hiring (or any other argument of that sort) seems a pretty unsure bet.
But cultural sociology is to the rescue! (Well not rescue, really, but at least some help in thinking this through.) Racism is a lot of things, of course, but one of the thing it is is a form of culture, a script that people can use in particular contexts, and that makes more sense in particular setting that others. Racism, in this sense, can’t be “cured” or “converted away from” because, well, it’s a script that white people are all basically going to keep forever, in the same way that Evangelical converts to Catholicism never really shake certain Evangelical ways of viewing the world. (Bourdieu obviously also talks about something like this in terms of how the habitus has trouble shifting between fields or when the field changes dramatically). Yet the insight from studies of culture and cognition is that we all have much more culture than we ever use at any one time, and that there are certain settings or contexts that activate particular elements of culture rather than others. So a more modest goal for Trump voters might be not so much to convince them they’re racists and that’s wrong (though that’s certainly a goal too!) but to make their racism less practical, feel less useful, not seem appropriate in whatever given context.
That obviously doesn’t solve even close to everything. There are straightforward questions about segregated housing and schooling, discordant prison sentencing, a host of other things. But even asking Trump voters to think about those things right now flips on certain scripts, certain lenses through which “race” is engaged. While the long term goal is convincing them they’re wrong to be so racist, a good short term goal might be making other scripts more salient at those moments, say, economic stability or what have you.