From the beginning, Donald Trump has appealed directly to racial resentment, including his birther campaign questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship. He ran a racist campaign for president, and he is running a racist administration. Like others, I don’t care about the academic question of whether Trump is really racist or just a political opportunist. But I do care about the truth; and while I like to see him get his comeuppance for the ugliness he has exploited and nurtured, not all of that comeuppance is based on truth. The consistent outrage from liberals when Trump refers to US senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” is an example. Does Trump deserve what he’s getting? Sure. Is it accurate? No.
The Pocahontas flap was revived on Monday, when Trump used the name for Warren at a White House event for Navajo veterans of World War II. The liberal internet unanimously condemned this as racist, all the worse because Trump used the putdown in front of Native Americans. But treating this taunt as racist is an illiterate misreading of Trump’s intention. Calling Warren “Pocahontas” is only racist if you believe that Warren is actually Native American. Many people do not, Trump surely among them. Calling Warren “Pocahontas” when you don’t believe she is Native American is making fun of a white person for pretentiousness. Maybe that’s a form of racism against white people, but I wouldn’t think so. If Warren did a photo op at a firing range and Trump started calling her “Annie Oakley,” would that be an insult to female sharpshooters? Of course not. It’s just that Annie Oakley is a female sharpshooter, and Elizabeth Warren is not.
A lot of people would like to have Native American ancestry. First, it’s romantic; second, it absolves us of whiteness. In contrast to some, I don’t think there’s anything bad about our embrace of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas, their cultures and their ways of life. It’s far better that we should celebrate the American Indians than confine ourselves to perpetual obsession with Europe. And obviously the white guilt many of us feel, and others (like Trump supporters) are tired of being told they should feel, would be lessened if we could convince ourselves we aren’t that white.
And many people think they have Native American ancestry. Some of those people actually do, some of them are honestly mistaken, and some of them are delusional. Elizabeth Warren has said that her family taught her that she had Native American ancestry. When a family like hers tells such a story about this heritage, it can well be sincere; but the fewer ancestors and the more distant they are, the less likely this story is true. Three things make Warren’s claimed ancestry particularly suspect: it is distant; it is slight; and it is Cherokee. Cherokee ancestry is the grand cliché of Indian ancestry. At most, just one of Warren’s great-great-great-grandparents was Cherokee; but she has no evidence of that, and no one else does, either. Now if this had just come up in conversation with friends, it might have been grounds for a bit of good-natured teasing and nothing more. But Warren reported this claimed ancestry as fact in her professional biography, and it was later used by her employer, Harvard Law School, as evidence of diversity. The nation’s most exclusive and élitist law school used Warren’s supposed Native American ancestry to defend its reputation. Maybe Warren didn’t intend to use her claimed ancestry to get a job with Harvard; but Harvard knew about this claim and eventually took advantage of it. So: a white person claims to be Cherokee, a prestigious law school hires her believing her to be a Cherokee, she rises to prominence in the Democratic Party relying in part on her association with that prestigious law school, and Trump says, Oh, sure, you’re a regular Pocahontas. Is racism really the best explanation for his taunt?
Of course, many people have called it racist without elaborating. Trump says racist things, this has to do with race, so it, too, must be racist, no proof needed. But the elaborations don’t help. During the height of the outrage last year, Jacob Weisberg preposterously claimed that “Pocahontas” is the equivalent of calling blacks “Sambo” or “Aunt Jemima,” even if Warren is not Native American. First, Sambo and Aunt Jemima are characters, while Pocahontas is a historical figure. Second, Sambo and Aunt Jemima are negative stereotypes, while Pocahontas is at worst neutral. The real equivalent would be calling Rachel Dolezal “Rosa Parks” — a contrast between what a person is and what she imagines herself to be. And it really does matter, on the subject of racism, if Warren is or is not a Native American. Meanwhile, Cherokee citizen Mary Kathryn Nagle reacted with the claim that Trump is tying Warren and indeed all Native Americans to “a fantastical, oversexualized, Disney character.” But Trump was forty-nine when the Disney film came out. That means he had forty-nine years to consider the historical reality of Pocahontas before Disney oversexualized her. Pocahontas has long been one of the two most famous Native American women (along with Sacagawea); at most, the film made her the single most famous. All Pocahontas is to Trump in this scenario, then, is an accessible example of what a prominent Democrat and her famously-liberal élite employer claim her to be.
The questioning of Warren’s heritage is common on the political right; it was an issue in her 2012 senate campaign against Scott Brown, for example. Among all the racist things Trump has been accused of, the one most commonly condemned by other Republicans was his charge of bias against judge Gonzalo Curiel. Despite the broad agreement on this example, it, too, was not racist. Curiel was the judge presiding over several Trump University fraud cases. Trump accused Curiel of bias based on Curiel’s Mexican heritage. It’s important to understand that Donald Trump did not say that judges of Mexican heritage could not be impartial in general. He said that judges of Mexican heritage could not be impartial with respect to Donald Trump. (He originally just said “Mexican”; but calling him racist because he substituted ‘Mexican’ for ‘Mexican-American’ is pretty thin, particularly given that most hyphenated Americans will leave off the ‘-American’ contextually.)
The framing of the charge of racism against Trump in the Curiel case is that he accused someone of being incapable of doing his job — which for Curiel involves impartial application of the law — because of his ethnicity. This is “textbook” racism, according to Paul Ryan himself. But while this was going on, a storm also erupted over the lenient sentence given to convicted rapist Brock Turner by judge Aaron Persky. Turner was a Stanford athlete, Persky had also been a Stanford athlete, and the only reason I know this about either of them is because some people thought the similarity was relevant. Some people believe that Persky’s personal sympathies — his group membership; his tribal loyalties — affected his sentencing decision. If we collected all the people who share this view of Persky and separately all those who think Trump is a racist for suggesting group membership may have influenced Gonzalo Curiel, who would bet that there is no overlap?
Trump’s charge against Curiel rested on two underlying beliefs: first, that the case should have gone better for Trump than it did, and second, that the judge had grounds for bias. Ergo, the judge’s bias was the source of the unfair outcome. There is nothing remarkable about the first belief; even if it is usually false, it is quite common for litigants to believe that any unfavorable outcome in a trial is unfair. The thing about the second belief is that everyone who is calling Trump’s charge racist already agrees with what he is saying. Polls make clear that Hispanics don’t like Donald Trump. They really, really don’t like him. And though polls don’t generally break Hispanics down, Trump has been especially insulting to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, so we can suppose that their disapproval rate is at the high end of the surveyed Hispanics. Curiel is an educated man and he surely reads the news. It would be astonishing if he didn’t have a low opinion of Donald Trump. The idea is, statistically speaking, ridiculous.
People don’t like the implications of this obvious conclusion; they rightly don’t like the idea that a judge could be disqualified from a case because of his ethnicity. But this is not an insoluble problem. What Trump said about Curiel was still just an accusation, and he would have needed to demonstrate a pattern of unfair treatment in the trial before we need even bother with Curiel’s motives. And more importantly, our society has already made a determination about bigots. We have a social consensus against racism, and a social bias against racists. And if racists won’t stop being racists, they will have to live with our bias. We wouldn’t try a Klansman with an all-white jury. Donald Trump doesn’t get to be judged by those who tolerate racism, because such people, we hope, are few. Accordingly, we don’t need to pretend that it’s racist for Trump to suggest that Gonzalo Curiel didn’t like him. Gonzalo Curiel almost certainly didn’t like Trump — because he’s a racist. If Trump doesn’t like that, he can stop being a racist.
This essay has been adapted from a previous version.
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