Junk theories about race in America are about as common as racism itself. It seems like equal time is devoted both to bigotry and to gaslighting people of color about their predicament. The final two paragraphs of Andrew Sullivan’s New York magazine column last week exemplified this, deploying the Eurocentric notion of Asians as a “model minority” to ridicule the idea that race may have been a factor in what happened to David Dao, the passenger brutalized by police aboard that now-infamous United Airlines flight. This was just a stupid thing for him to do, especially since he did it all just to discredit the idea that racism is everywhere in the United States.
Because racism is everywhere. It’s embedded in virtually every American institution, not just because slavery was foundational to this republic, but also because it still lives at home, right now. It affects your paycheck. It’s part of the reason why Flint’s drinking water is still contaminated and lead paint remains on poor kids’ walls. It informs our shopping decisions. It can strike during a traffic stop, and it shapes congressional district maps. It demands your birth certificate. Racism deducts federal funding for abortion providers in the name of all lives mattering, despite the fact that Planned Parenthood helps lower black infant mortality rates. It thrives in whitewashed popular culture and in our press. It is embedded into the histories of our finest universities. It helps elect presidents. And sometimes, racism will visit a black church, hang out during a Bible study, and wait for the last “amen” before it begins firing.
This kind of bigotry is both ethereal and tangible, and it is all around us. When racism shows up in our laws, that’s worse than a thousand people calling us “niggers.” The president’s Muslim travel ban and harsh immigration enforcement are good examples of bigotry manifesting in our public policy, but for once, Trump isn’t even the most worrisome politician in his own administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is putting in some real work at the moment to show just how racist a government can be in the modern era. The late civil rights activist Coretta Scott King warned us of Sessions’s impulse to disregard the civil rights of African-Americans, and his tenure thus far shows that she was right: Whether it’s withdrawing opposition to discriminatory state voter-identification laws or calling for a new War on Drugs (especially marijuana) to feed private and public prisons, Sessions has seized the power of the state to exacerbate racial inequality and stagnate progressive measures to fight it.
This particular strain of systemic bias is perhaps most evident in how Sessions has tried to protect the feelings of law enforcement officials. Sessions claims that police brutality can be attributed to “bad apple” cops, and thus resists federal consent decrees — or formal agreements between the federal government and district courts to reform police departments. Even though these decrees have been proven to reduce corrupt, biased policing in cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, Sessions argued during a radio interview last week that these decrees “can reduce morale of the police officers,” as if that was the main priority. He went on to endorse the “broken windows” style of policing — increasing arrests for minor crimes as a way to deter more serious ones — a tactic which has proven to be both ineffective and discriminatory. The attorney general seems to want to coddle cops, but is actually making their jobs more difficult by supporting policies that will escalate tensions between them and communities of color. Perhaps Sessions does so because he knows who usually ends up paying the heaviest price in those confrontations. Whatever his reasoning, he is choosing to do this. The racial disparities and inequities furthered by his policies are not an accidental byproduct. It’s a package deal.
Some of his fellow conservatives apparently recognize this. In March, several former Justice Department officials called upon Sessions to clean up the “ideological rot” of the Obama administration by ridding the government of lawyers who might seek to protect communities disproportionately affected by civil rights violations. The way these former officials explained it gives the impression that white people suffer from similar discrimination as African-Americans, Latinos, and other marginalized racial groups. This is a convenient and persistent fiction that enables white self-victimization and diverts attention away from actual racial slights.
Sessions isn’t the only Trump administration official who embodies this attitude. Candice Jackson, the new head of the Department of Education’s civil rights division, made a similar accusation during her undergraduate days at Stanford. ProPublica reported that Jackson claimed she was discriminated against for her whiteness when she wasn’t allowed to join a calculus class section reserved for students of color. It’s a common refrain that still echoes throughout university campuses: That efforts to address structural racial inequities are themselves racist. Now Jackson (an avowed anti-feminist to boot) is charged with ensuring that the civil rights of students are protected by the federal government.
Her accusation, though, points to a laughably impossible paradox within conservatism: How can one deny evidence of bigotry while claiming to be the victim of it? Somehow, conservatives believe reverse racism is a real thing while actual racism is not. It is everywhere and nowhere at once, which seems to be the point. Oversaturating the public with contradictory ideas is one of this administration’s most insidious qualities, and that particular talent comes in handy when trying to hide the effects of systemic racism. Sullivan, despite his stated opposition to Trump, helps the president in that effort. He posits that those involved in social justice work find white supremacy under every rock, and are accusing all white people of being racists. That’s not true at all. What they’ve been trying to do is show America the true scope of its racism, and reveal all the places where it lives. It isn’t nearly as difficult to find as Sullivan suggests. Sometimes, it’s in his own writing.