Bigotry extends beyond those who use intolerant rhetoric
One of the most striking moments of the midterm campaign season last year was when Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, said of his opponent, “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying that the racists believe he’s a racist.” I think what Gillum was pointing to — what we could term the “DeSantis relation”— is a helpful addition to our discourse around prejudice.
The DeSantis Relation is defined as follows: a person is DeSantis-related to some prejudice if, regardless of whether he or she personally harbors it, those who surely do harbor the prejudice believe that person to be on their side. Written symbolically: [x] may not be [y], but the [y]s think that [x] is a [y]. A person is DeSantis-unrelated if the latter part of the equation doesn’t hold.
The advantages of the DeSantis Relation are twofold: first, it allows for a discourse about prejudice that is both serious and held in good-faith. We often fall into the trap when discussing prejudice of thinking that good people cannot possibly disagree on what is bigoted, because the intolerance is itself so bad that no good person could harbor it. But this is plainly false, an untruth which anti-racists have sought to dispel by building a whole dialect of privilege and unlearning around. Nevertheless, a sincere person who aims for impartiality can limit the influence these internalized prejudices have on his thought process by cutting off any support he might receive by indulging them, i.e., by making sure he is DeSantis-unrelated to those who would do people harm. This is, on the scale of party politics, a necessary norm.
The second advantage of the DeSantis relation is that rather than discuss a person’s inner virtue or lack thereof, it deals with the material consequences of their behavior. Recall the most iconic example of the DeSantis relation in modern American history: the president’s outrageous “both-sides”ing after the 2017 Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Is the president personally sympathetic to the white supremacists’ cause? Who knows, and, to a degree, who cares? The question of the president’s intentions is secondary to the fact that those whose motivations we do know, vicious racists who commit acts of violence against minorities, are now emboldened to carry out these heinous deeds in the president’s name. In other words, regardless of whether the president is personally a white supremacist, he is clearly DeSantis-related to white supremacy, and his refusal to sever that relation is a threat to people’s safety.
This is how we must learn to think about particular prejudices; not as personal character flaws, but as viruses that need to be diagnosed and treated before they become public health crises. Like those who carry viruses without experiencing symptoms, many people carry a given prejudice without ever knowing it, by transmitting ignorant rhetoric and voting for unjust policies. It is not morally wrong to be sick. But if a doctor explains that you’re sick and contagious, you really ought to stay home, because other people are now at risk. In an age when people are radicalized online, when the oldest of hatreds sell themselves as ‘memes’ until trolls become terrorists, an idea ‘going viral’ can be just as deadly the spread of a literal disease.
And if prejudice is to be looked at as a sort of epidemic, we must look at democracy as an exercise in herd immunity. We can start by the equivalent of vaccination — education. But how do we ensure, as individuals, that we aren’t part of the problem, when the problem exists on the level of collective assumptions that we don’t even know we’re making? The answer is to rephrase the DeSantis Relation: I don’t think I harbor this prejudice, but I know that I might. Therefore, I will make sure to keep an eye on those people who definitely do, to make sure that they’re not happy with what it is I’m saying and doing.
Our discourse right now is awash in those who refuse to hold themselves to this standard: public faux-intellectuals who phrase their criticisms of the silly campus left in a way that they know will empower the violent bigot right. Congresspeople who pay lip service to American values — values that they probably believe in their hearts — but nevertheless belong to a party whose electoral strategy consists of riling up a racist base. When Middle Eastern politics come up, self-righteous activists make sloppy condemnations of an imperfect democracy, while never bothering to disavow those people who target its innocent civilians. None of these people are equivalent to the people they empower; but by continuing to empower them, they bear some responsibility for the damage those people go out and do, in the same way those who “just ask questions” are partly responsible when other people come along to give predictable ignorant answers.
Meanwhile, those who are committed to combating prejudice throw out accusations of racism, anti-semitism, homophobia or the like, which, while accurate, only cause the other side to dig in its heels, and serve as a propaganda coup for those who paint real concerns as disingenuous hysteria. To tell a swath of people that they harbor an idea which, from their perspective, is antithetical to everything they stand for, won’t win them over to your side. But you might make progress by showing them that their behavior is emboldening those ugly people that they obviously want nothing to do with. Good people are open to constructive criticism, so long as you acknowledge they’re good people.
We live in a world that is soaked in bad ideas, ideas in which we all steep until someone explains us out of them. A national conversation about prejudice that is both honest and empathetic requires us to do all we can to prevent our words from being taken the wrong way. It also means being open to the possibility that, even taken the right way, there may still be something wrong with them.