Last weekend working at Food Lion, I had a less-than-positive interaction with a man who insisted that he was entitled to a 50 percent discount on the beer he was trying to buy because the last time he came in, we didn’t have it in stock. After I explained to him that we have no control over when we get shipments of alcohol because it’s controlled by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, he angrily abandoned his six-pack on the belt and stormed out the door.
The man happened to be wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Witnessing this interaction, one of my co-workers congratulated me on “denying that racist asshole his booze.” It took me a second. The man hadn’t said anything racist. He had only insulted me, and it was about my weight, not the color of my skin. My co-worker was talking about the man’s hat. It got me thinking about how often we make sweeping generalizations like that.
Not all of President Trump’s supporters are racist. Do they support a racist? Maybe so, but I would wager that most of Trump’s base aren’t racists. They’re just people who didn’t see another option. I can relate: during the primaries, I did not like Hillary Clinton. She had too many close ties to Wall Street and I didn’t think she was doing enough to support low-income families with children seeking higher education. But when the general election came up, I didn’t see a valid option on the other side; this is how many Republicans felt about Clinton.
This problem of lumping extremists in with the majority is a common problem in American politics and ideologies. It happens all the time: “All Trump supporters are racist.” “Black Lives Matter is a violent movement.” “All Democrats are socialists.” “Muslims are terrorists.” These generalizations are problematic in American political culture. They move debate away from real, important issues and create conversation about stupid, surface ideals that don’t reflect accurately on the majority of our society.
If we stop using these sorts of over-generalizations, political conversations turn back to things that need to be discussed, like the systemic racism that runs rampant in our country, climate change, taxes, education, multiple immigrant crises, bloody wars all over the world, homelessness, overpopulation, and corporate greed— there are enough issues plaguing our country that we don’t have the luxury of generalizations. We have to act fast to combat these concerns, and action requires discussion.
Even if every single one of Trump’s supporters were motivated to vote for him because of their bigotry toward one race or another, calling all Republicans racist wouldn’t make an iota of difference. Instead of calling people racist, we need to call out their acts of racism and have a conversation about it. Conversations can’t happen when you’re being condescending and hostile. Hostility only serves to drive away people in the middle who may be receptive.
I’m more than okay with calling the KKK racist — I’ll sing that song right along with you and the rest of the choir. But the minute you try to lump my uncle — who’s working 55-hour weeks trying to save up enough to send his kids to college and doesn’t want the burden of more taxes that he associates with Democratic presidencies — in with those racists, I stop singing. So should you.