Clinton’s ‘Deplorables’ Remark Misunderstands Racism — and Might Make It Worse

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Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Last week, Hillary Clinton put half of Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables,” describing them as so racist and hate-filled they are “irredeemable,” and contrasting them with Trump’s “hard-working” supporters who are, presumably, supporting the candidate out of some sort of genuine frustration or ideology that is less tainted by racial extremism. (Clinton later walked back her remarks, but only partially.)

The ensuing conversation raised some interesting, pointed questions about racism that normally get lost in the day-to-day churn of this conversation. Specifically: What does it say about someone when they hold a racist view? To what extent should we chalk that up to a deep character flaw on their part? And how should we react when people espouse hateful views? When they do, is that a good time to rehabilitate the old, frequently twisted Christian dictum of Love the sinner, hate the sin? Or are we retreating into mushy relativism when we don’t describe these people in morally harsh terms?

If you look at this through the lens of behavioral science and sociology, what feels like a pretty clear answer emerges: Considering people who hold racist views — even those whose views we find truly, really terrible — to be “irredeemable” and “deplorable” might actually be counterproductive in the long run. Here are three reasons why.

1. It grossly oversimplifies how racism “works.”

Dara Lind of Vox has written the best case for being wary about Clinton’s “deplorables” argument that has been published so far. Her basic thesis is as follows:

There’s a satisfying moral clarity in being able to out-and-out call people deplorable for their racist views, but there simply isn’t a bright line between “racist” and “not racist.” There are quiet biases, and degrees of awareness, that even people who don’t support Donald Trump — even “hard-working Americans” — need to be aware of. And there is more to racism than what lies within people’s hearts.

All of that gets blissfully elided when you sort people into baskets, calling some of them “irredeemable” and others morally sound. It allows everyone to feel superior. And it’s especially painful to see the racial progressives who’ve done so much to bring nuance into the conversation — to keep white America, regardless of its ideology, in a state of productive discomfort — now leading the cheerleading charge.

Lind argues that to buy into Clinton’s view of “deplorable” Trump supporters who are hardened racists and “hard-working” people whose political preferences aren’t primarily motivated by racism is to take a giant step backward in this vital conversation. It’s just another way of adopting what Lind calls the “white-hood” theory of racism, the long-discredited idea that racism is largely propagated by evil people who revel in their racism and run around constantly doing horrifically, explicitly racist things.

Thankfully, we’ve mostly moved past that view as a society, because it obscures more than it reveals. Sociology and social psychology and various other fields have taught us that racism — and power, which is inextricably linked to racism at the societal level — is way more complicated than that. There are people who are hard-working and who love their kids and who give to charity and who are community leaders who also hold, well, deplorable views about certain groups. Discrimination manifests itself in a million subtle, hard-to-pin-down ways.

That’s because racism comes quite easily to us as a species, unfortunately. It’s a straightforward outgrowth of the intense in-group/out-group tendencies we’ve evolved — tendencies that helped us survive when human life really was “my tribe versus the world,” but which can lead to awful behavior, especially now that most of the species is so far past the age of small tribes. So to act as though some big chunk of people are “deplorable” is to, as Lind argues, “let too many people off the hook.” Specifically, it lets the enlightened liberals pointing out how deplorable other people are off the hook — for those liberals, it carves up the world into the good people, who aren’t racist (“us”), and the bad people, who are (“them”). That may be a comforting way to feel, but like almost any Manichean worldview it breaks down entirely as a means of accurately describing human society and power relations.

2. Calling people “deplorables” wrongly implies most people choose to hold racist views.

Obviously, different groups are affected by prejudice at different rates. In the U.S., people of color have borne the historical brunt of prejudice, and continue to bear its brunt today. But prejudice itself pops up everywhere, and when you look at the organic way in which it does, it usually doesn’t really make sense to chalk it up to an individual moral failing.

There are some exceptions, of course: There are people who grow up in tolerant households, who have access to all the research and enlightenment they could possibly need, and still end up adopting hateful views. In these cases, it’s not out of line to frame their decision as a choice — they decided, unfortunately, that racism “works for them” in some way or another. The same goes for the flip side, for those saintly few who are immersed in prejudice from a young age but manage to transcend it and speak out against it. That happens, too, and can be viewed as a choice.

But these are outlier cases; that’s not normally how prejudice works. I’m Jewish, and some of my older relatives have offensive views about Muslims and Arabs which are frequent fodder for arguments (every progressive millennial Jew reading this is probably nodding along right now). And yet while I find their views deplorable, I don’t think they, as human beings, are themselves deplorable, let alone irredeemable. They were members of the Holocaust generation — they watched an unimaginable horror unfold (mostly from the U.S., luckily), and it skewed, in tragic and predictable ways, their ability to accurately assess threats and deal with in-group/out-group questions in a manner 2016 progressives would view as acceptable. In a twisted, trauma-colored, visceral way, crazy emails about how Obama is plotting to destroy Israel make sense to them, and that’s why they read them wide-eyed. But at no point were any of them presented with what could fairly be called a choice of whether to adopt reasonable views about the groups and countries they are afraid of — it all emerged out of a charged mix of tragedy and psychology and group dynamics and everything else that makes being a human being simultaneously fraught and fascinating.

So, no, I don’t think they’re deplorable or irredeemable human beings. And this isn’t a kinship thing — I’d extend the exact same benefit of the doubt to your relatives, because you do have relatives, somewhere, with hateful views. If you’re white, there’s a good chance you have a relative who harbors anti-black bias. If you’re black, there’s a better chance you have a relative who is homophobic than there is if you’re white. If you’re Muslim, anti-Semitism likely pops up in your family. For us Jews, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments are unfortunately rampant. And on and on and on. These relatives (and friends and co-workers) aren’t deplorable or irredeemable — rather, they’re human beings who, by virtue of having human brains, developed deplorable views.

Again, the biases in question have differential impacts, so they can’t all be lumped together as equally harmful. But the point is that at the individual level many if not most human beings who develop prejudice do so without being given a moral choice in the matter. Some people are, unfortunately, inculcated from an early age with prejudices stemming from culture and religion and war and trauma and everything else. People are reluctant to admit this because it’s so psychologically fraught — we’d all like to think that there’s no possible universe in which we would have been a “deplorable.” But that’s a complete myth: However enlightened you are today, if you’d been born in a different time or a different place, there’s at least a chance you would have supported Trump or his equivalent. Your views would still have been deplorable — one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that racism and xenophobia just are deplorable, regardless of the holder — but you would not have been given a real choice about whether to adopt them.

All of which is to say: You can’t simultaneously adopt the sophisticated, accurate position that racism is really complicated and the result of myriad swirling factors, and then collapse all that into “Some people are just deplorable!” when you zoom in to the level of individuals.

3. The “deplorables” view makes it harder to actually fight racism.

Maybe you’re unimpressed with what I’ve said so far. There’s one last reason you should reconsider your framing on this issue: This sort of talk probably exacerbates racism in the long run.

Damon Linker hinted at this nicely in a piece just published in The Week, when he pointed out that Clinton’s remarks were clearly geared at an audience that already agreed with her about this stuff, about the awfulness of Trump supporters. As for the people who aren’t Clinton supporters, Linker points out that “not a single Trump voter would hear Clinton’s words and conclude, ‘You know what, I am deplorable! But I’m not irredeemable and I’m going to prove it by dropping Trump and voting for Hillary Clinton instead!’”

This lines up perfectly with the social science of prejudice and attitude change. Political psychologists and others have been trying to figure out forever how and why people change their minds about hot-button issues pertaining to social justice, and the one thing they’ve found doesn’t work, over and over and over and over (and over), is telling people how deplorable they or their beliefs are, or pointing out the factual inaccuracies they are bandying about. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this seems to cause a defensiveness force field to instantly envelop the “deplorable” in question.

To the extent anything does work, it is (gasp) treating people holding deplorable views as human beings worth engaging with. Two of the biggest lines of research that support this view are the related ideas of moral-foundation theory (MFT) and so-called active processing.

You can read about how to adopt a more MFT-fluent political argument here (see #5), but active processing is, in a sense, even more relevant to this conversation. Active versus passive processing has to do with how you interpret a piece of information with which you’re presented.

To oversimplify a bit, active processing is when you turn that information over carefully in your head, when you really reflect on it and, sometimes, integrate it into your sense of who you are and what you believe. Passive processing, on the other hand, is when you let your initial, gut-level reaction to a piece of information guide your response — you don’t really give that information a chance to sink in or affect you.

If you approach someone with deplorable racial views and say, “That is so disgusting you think that, and I’m going to list some reasons you are wrong,” you are reducing the odds of them engaging in useful active processing to approximately zilch. They’ll spit out some remark about you being a coddled liberal and not give your argument a second thought.

Then there’s the better approach. It was nicely summed up by a recent study published in Science, which Science of Us covered here. The authors, political science researchers David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, sent canvassers out to talk to Miami-Dade County voters about transphobia and to get their opinions about a recent antidiscrimination ordinance that had been passed there.

Quoting from my article:

After hearing a resident’s opinions on the law, canvassers shared a video in which proponents on both sides expressed their views. The subject was asked to react to the video, sparking a bit more conversation with the canvasser. Then — and this is key — the canvasser asked the subject whether they’d ever experienced stigma or negative judgment like a transgender person might. If necessary, the canvasser gave examples from their own life to help fuel the conversation — some of the canvassers were transgender, and at this point they might reveal this and tell the subject a bit about their experiences being judged. Finally, at the end of the conversation, the subject was asked again for opinions about the law and transgender people.

The “key” part was designed to elicit active processing, to get the voter to temporarily view transgender people not as some distant, alien group, but as human beings who may have gone through the same sorts of things they themselves went through.

It seems to have worked. At the time of the canvassing, those in the experimental group and the control group, which got a presumably boring talk about recycling that didn’t mention trans issues, rated transgender people about equally on a 101-point “feelings thermometer.” A full three months after the intervention, those in the active-processing group rated trans people 9.2 points higher than did those in the control group. (By way of comparison, Americans’ views towards gays and lesbians went up 8.5 points between 1998 and 2012.)

You can’t map this result perfectly onto race, because the trans conversation is newer, and people’s views on it are probably more malleable. But the same basic logic prevails: If your goal is to actually convince people to change their minds about a heated subject, your best bet is to get them to think about the issue in question through a humane, personal lens. Was there a time they felt excluded? That they felt unjustly judged? Calling people “deplorable” or viewing them as morally tainted in some deep-seated way makes it a lot harder to do the vital mind-changing work racial-justice activists have been anonymously trudging away at for decades.

***

The most potent argument in favor of deploying language about “irredeemable deplorables” has to do with social norms. Maybe, the thinking goes, if progressives constantly call out racism and describe the holders of racist views with morally charged language, it will shift society’s social norms in a good direction. Maybe the calling-out itself can, contra my argument above, reduce racism.

But there’s much more evidence to suggest social norms change as a result of meaningful personal experience than from shaming at the hands of political opponents. In addition to the active-processing and moral-foundations research, the contact hypothesis — a foundational idea in social psychology about improving intergroup relations — suggests that putting people on the same “team,” giving them common goals, and providing them with meaningful interactions with members of other groups all can reduce prejudice. These interactions are hard enough to promote without the belief that one or both parties are, by dint of the views they hold, morally bankrupt and therefore unworthy of any sort of engagement.

More broadly, the argument that Trump supporters are simply unaware that many people find their views deplorable, that they’re just a few more shaming episodes away from seeing the light, doesn’t really pass the smell test — these supporters are open about the fact that they see the expression of their views as a strike against “political correctness,” basically defined to mean “social norms against outward expressions of racism.” Does anyone really think further shaming is going to sway them?

To be fair, all this is pretty academic — we live in an extremely segregated country with a racially horrific history, and for someone who is personally victimized by racism, it’s thin comfort to know that some distant researcher published a super-promising meta-analysis about reducing prejudice. No one has the right to tell victims of prejudice how to view its perpetrators, and the desire to frame these beliefs and acts as originating from “evil” people is, itself, a completely human and understandable response.

But there’s a difference between people’s subjective experiences and the terms we set for the big, ongoing national conversation about racism and for social justice. Within that conversation, viewing people who hold racist views as irredeemable, and describing their beliefs in terms of moral taint, just isn’t the best way forward.