Rebecca Carroll and Van Jones Talk Race and the Race

CNN commentator Van Jones Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Carroll: It feels to me like race is always the last thing to be addressed in conversations about elections, despite the fact that racism is at the core of this country.
Jones: I think the racial legacy and present divisions are so painful that most people would rather leave them out of polite conversation. The mere reality that the vast majority of all communities of color voted one way and the majority of the white community voted the opposite way for now three elections in a row means something. But it certainly doesn’t mean that every white person who voted for Trump is a racist.

I wonder, though, how you make that distinction.
It’s not necessarily the case that a person who votes for someone who has made bigoted statements is themselves a bigot. If you talk to Trump voters, they will often express some discomfort with a lot of the things that he has said, but those things are not disqualifying for them because they’re so desperate for change.

A change that would benefit them and not others, by way of racism.
I think that you’re describing a particular paradigm that seems like reality to liberals. That’s not the only paradigm. A lot of Trump voters feel, No. 1, white people get called racist all the time and so it’s not disqualifying for someone to say that Trump’s a racist because maybe they get called racists, too. There are large numbers of white people who feel that racial-justice activists have cried wolf so many times that they may as well just let the wolves into the nursery because the terms have been abused.

Where do you think they get that impression from?
Well, we have different definitions of racism in America. If you’re a person of color, when you say that someone has racial bias, we often are talking about implicit bias or subjective bias. So in the back of your mind, you’ve got some stereotypes you might not be aware of, but it shows up in your behavior. So for a person of color to say that there’s racial bias present, that person feels like they may be giving something as everyday as a parking ticket. But for a lot of white people, when they hear that they’re being accused of racial bias, they think they’re being charged with 14 felonies and capital punishment. And so they’re saying, “Hey, if you’re gonna make this level of a charge against me, you better have a mountain of evidence.”

But isn’t a country founded upon racism enough evidence? It’s not a moral failure on the parts of these people who are displaying bias. It’s systemic.
Well, see, that’s also a liberal paradigm. By the time you’ve thought enough about race and racism to have the distinction “systemic racism” in your mind, you’ve thought about it for hundreds of hours more than the people that you’re talking about.

Then is there no point in encouraging those folks to think about it as much?
If we live in a democratic republic that is multiracial, multicultural, and multifaith, we have to work harder to understand each other. And the barriers are often completely innocent and unconscious stereotypes that rattle around in everyone’s head. Here’s the problem: For a lot of the Trump voters, even raising this conversation they find offensive. And alarming.

But then we are the ones who have to bend: Let us help you understand our pain. Why are they not able to find that empathy on their own?
Now you’re describing the racial stalemate that we’ve been in for the Obama years. And so this presumption of unimpeachable white innocence on every question of race is a feature of the Trump voter’s paradigm. The struggle I’m having is to be in two conversations at the same time. Because I am a progressive racial-justice advocate. I understand our paradigm really well, and I wish more people would adopt it. But I also have to live in a country where there are tens of millions of people who are living in a completely different paradigm. I want the 24-year-old Latina, Sanders-supporting, racial-justice activist to understand that there aren’t 30 million or 50 million white Trump voters who hate her. And I want for that 54-year-old white heterosexual red-state voter to understand that because they voted for someone who said such outrageous things, there are now millions of people of color who think that he hates them.

I see the rebels on the rise and I see the Establishment on the ropes and I have some sympathy for all the rebels. Whether it’s the Sanders voters and Black Lives Matter or whether it’s the tea party and the Trump voters. I agree that there’s an elite in the country that’s let a whole bunch of us down. What I am desperately trying to do is, if I can, help the rebels understand each other better. We’re not going to agree on much, but the way forward here is for liberals to really do what we accuse the Trump voters of not doing. In other words, to empathize with the pain of their fellow human beings. This idea that Trump voters are all bad and Hillary voters are all good or Hillary voters are all bad, Trump voters are all good — that’s what’s getting us into trouble. On all sides, I see hypocrisy and blind spots and pain.

I feel the pain. I feel the anger. On CNN, you said Trump must “reassure people that he’s going to be the president of all those people he offended.” We know he’s not gonna do that.
Do we?

I think so.
I am willing to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, both. Just sitting around hoping for the best doesn’t make a lot of sense, and only preparing for the worst you sometimes miss openings. Listen, look, progressives might be able to work with Trump on trade, on a better health-care system, who knows, on poverty — he spoke out about poverty — if you look carefully at what’s going on, it’s not all good and it’s not all bad.

*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

Rebecca Carroll and Van Jones Talk Race and the Race