It was a framing that might have worked with any other two presidents. On Friday, The New York Times published a comparison of how Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, approached controversies over racism. “Obama offered balm. Trump drops verbal bombs. But both were accused, in a polarized country, of making racial tensions worse,” the paper tweeted. That bland equivalence between the first black president and his white successor, who rode to the White House on a racist conspiracy theory denying Obama was born in the United States, provoked a firestorm of criticism on social media.
That fact alone shows how impossible it is to approach the Trump presidency the way the media might approach any other administration—indeed, bafflingly, the article briefly references birtherism without acknowledging Trump’s embrace of the conspiracy theory, and how it affected his political fortunes. The relationship between Trump and Obama is historically unique in that the former was elected by a racial backlash to the latter, another point the piece declines to acknowledge, whether to refute or affirm.
Instead, the piece is constructed around the juxtaposition of the criticism that Obama encountered for acknowledging the racism black Americans still face with the fact that Trump is often accused of racism. The piece notes that after Obama spoke at a funeral for nine black people murdered by a white supremacist, “some people, mostly white, accused him of dividing the country when he spoke empathetically about the racism faced by black Americans.” By contrast, in the Trump era, “People often debate whether what the president did or did not say was a sign that he was racist.”
The president’s overtly prejudiced remarks about religious and ethnic minorities, in a country where the accusation of racism is often regarded as morally equivalent to racial discrimination, poses a challenge for media outlets seeking to accurately represent the views of the president and his supporters without enraging either of them. That task is largely impossible, which is why the media have developed a ludicrous and expanding menu of complex euphemisms for describing racist behavior, and why a piece purporting to contrast two presidents’ approaches to racism dances so elaborately around the obvious.
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The framing of the piece illustrates how the American discourse concerning racism remains largely about hurt feelings, rather than discriminatory policy: Some people said Obama acknowledging racism was racist, and also some people don’t like that Trump is called racist. This ostensibly neutral framing is centered around a white audience more concerned with being called racist than facing racial discrimination, and one that experiences racism as naughty words rather than as policies that affect whether and how people live their lives. This is why the cancellation of a sitcom about a Trump supporting white working-class family draws more press coverage than the fact that the aftermath of Hurricane Maria may have caused almost twice as many American casualties as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a national trauma so harrowing it continues to shape American politics almost two decades later.
There is no mention in the piece of the Trump administration’s handling of Maria at all, nor the the hundreds of thousands of Americans displaced by it. There’s no discussion of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the United States, largely from nonwhite countries, whose legal statuses have been revoked even though they have no criminal records and pose no public-safety threat. The recent controversy over a newly instituted policy of separating parents and children at the border makes no appearance. The president’s travel ban, instituted after a campaign in which he expressed the desire to ban Muslims from the country, goes unmentioned. The decision of Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to forgo all oversight of discriminatory policing by local law enforcement is undiscussed. Instead Trump’s successful attempt to force the NFL to suppress criticism of racist policing by black athletes is described as Trump having “ignored or rejected the racial tensions at the core of some high-profile, combustible public issues.” Describing a situation in which the president deliberately seized (according to the Times’ own reporting) on a controversy over unequal treatment of black Americans for political advantage as having “ignored” or “rejected” racial tensions is bizarre—but it’s also false.
One might think that in a piece contrasting two presidents’ approaches to racism, their actual policies might come into play. But they don’t—instead the piece only contrasts their rhetorical approaches, as if they could be separated, and as if the way Americans discuss racism is more important than how it affects people. This is a common editorial decision that, in aiming to grant equal moral and factual weight to two sides of an argument, takes a side without realizing it has done so.
An era in which Americans are supposedly exhausted with political correctness is thus defined by the acute political sensitivities and persecution complexes of white voters who object if things they do and say are described as racist, even as the bodies pile up in the background.