As the Overton Window shifts rightwards, the term “racist” has lost its sting.
“Let them call you racist,” the man widely credited with crafting President Trump’s nationalist message during the 2016 campaign told a far-right crowd in France last week.
“Let them call you xenophobes,” Steve Bannon continued. “Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
Bannon’s willingness to shoulder the racist label is striking because for decades even some of the boldest white supremacists rejected it. For instance, Chris Barker, a KKK leader, used racial slurs and said in a 2017 interview with Univision “we killed six million Jews the last time; 11 million [immigrants] is nothing.” When asked “are you racist?” he said flatly, “no.” He also said the KKK was not a hate group.
For experts on racism in America, the acceptance of the term by Bannon, a former senior White House adviser and former chief of alt-right website Breitbart News, is a troubling sign of the acceptance of hate more broadly in society.
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit advocacy group that tracks hate groups, was immediately struck by the similarity between Bannon’s remark and a statement from the League of the South, which the SPLC labeled a hate group.
“We wear this designation as a badge of honor,” League of the South leader Michael Smith wrote on the group’s website. “If your enemies are not attacking you, you are not doing your job.”
Hearing “basically the same words” come from “someone like Bannon, with the position he’s held and where he stands in conservative politics is shocking,” said Beirich, who heads the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “Racism obviously is a horrific thing that has oppressed millions of people over the centuries and the fact that he would make light of it is irresponsible and kind of grotesque.”
“Nobody should normalize racism,” but that’s what is happening, Beirich said. She noted that an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in the wake of last year’s violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., which showed that 9% of Americans believe it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.
Beirich also pointed to the example of George Allen, whose 2006 Senate campaign was derailed after he called an Indian-American man “macaca.”
“Basically, Trump and some other candidates are saying the equivalent of ‘macaca’ all the time, and it’s no longer a barrier to political advancement,” she said.
What’s in a name?
Of course, most people still strongly reject the racist label. For example, a recent poll found that 57% of Americans think President Trump is a racist, but Trump has repeatedly insisted that he is the “least racist person there is.”
Bannon, in 2016, said, “I’m not a white nationalist. I’m a nationalist.”
William H. Regnery III, who founded the National Policy Institute, which is now headed by the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer, has also rejected the racist label.
“I’m a tribalist. I’m not a racist or white supremacist,” Regnery said in an interview with The Atlantic.
Spencer himself said he prefers the term “identitarian” and even the League of the South rejects the term racist on its website as “a slur used by anti-Whites.” Rather, the group calls itself “pro-South” and “pro-White.”
American University history professor Ibram X. Kendi said that white supremacists have for decades used those sort of distinctions “to distinguish themselves from racism, particularly within a United States where very few people are willing to admit that their ideas are racist.”
Backlash against ‘PC culture’
Bannon is seeking to change the definition of the term, Kendi said. Amid a backlash against political correctness, Bannon is saying that liberals hurl the racist insult at people who challenge their positions and label anyone who is “America-first” a nativist.
By framing it that way, people who might have otherwise been ashamed of being labeled a racist are “allowed to basically say that what they’re doing is noble” and that “racists are actually quite noble,” Kendi said.
Bannon might blame the watering down of the label’s power on liberals who have casually thrown the term around, said Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, but the “net effect” will be to “defang charges of racism and xenophobia.”
“I suspect that Bannon is using the cloak of the backlash against political correctness to try to normalize racist and xenophobic attitudes,” Stanley said.
Kendi likened it to the shifting defenses of slavery in America before the Civil War. At the time of the nation’s founding, many slaveholders promoted the idea of slavery as a “necessary evil,” he said. But as the Abolitionist movement grew, figures like John C. Calhoun began to promote slavery as a public good that “civilized” black people while benefiting the American economy.