Donald Trump observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day the Donald Trump way, by parsing one of his blatantly racist statements. In this case, the statement involved his belief that the United States should cease to admit immigrants from Africa because, even though African immigrants have high levels of educational attainment, Trump deems the countries — and, by extension, their populations — to be “shitholes” or “shithouses.”
Today, Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offered up a novel defense of the president. He can’t be a racist because he had a television show: “I think that is an outrageous claim, and frankly I think if the critics of the president were who he said he was, why did NBC give him a show for a decade on TV,” explained Sanders.
The belief that television networks would never employ a racist is oddly naïve, especially for a figure as steeped in criticism of Hollywood as the daughter of famed social conservative Mike Huckabee. In case Sanders is confused on this point, there is not, in fact, a racism test applied to reality-television performers. That is how Phil Robertson was able to slip through and gain a starring role in Duck Dynasty despite his belief that African-Americans were happier when they had no civil rights.
Indeed, Bill Pruitt, a former producer of Trump’s program, has said that Trump repeatedly made racist comments during the filming of his show. Unsurprisingly, NBC chose not to air its star making racist comments. And the producers chose not to admonish their performer for his racism. As Pruitt explained, “It was not my place to be, ‘Hey, TV star, you know, reason we’re all here, shut your [expletive] damn mouth, and don’t ever, ever repeat what you just said.’”
As one famous expert in celebrity power dynamics has put it, in a different context, When you’re a star, they let you do it.