Steve Bannon can be racist and still have black friends

Steve Bannon can be racist and still have black friends

In a New York Times profile published on Sunday, screenwriter Julia Jones discussed her relationship with Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart head whom President-elect Donald Trump tapped to be his chief strategist on Nov. 13.

Jones and Bannon worked together on a Ronald Reagan documentary that came out in 2004. In the Times piece, Jones delivered a clear rebuttal to the various people who've defended Bannon against charges of racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism in the last three weeks.

"Ms. Jones ... said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners," the Times reported.

"I said, 'That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,'" Jones told the paper. "He said, 'Maybe that's not such a bad thing.'" Then, Jones asked about Wendy, Bannon's executive assistant who is black. "He said, 'She's different. She's family.'"

This exchange — if true — may seem startling, but it's actually quite consistent with the logic many have applied to conversations about race since Trump announced his presidency. Trump, Bannon and their supporters aren't new to accusations of racism. But they have regularly denied the charges using their occasional proximity to people of color as proof they harbor no animus. 

These claims showcase a fundamental misunderstanding of how racism works. It rarely manifests itself as all-out hatred; you can be racist and still stomach people of color's existence. You can even have black friends. The idea that Bannon's black executive assistant, Wendy, was somehow exceptional in his eyes because she was close to him does not absolve him of racism, nor of his apparent comfort with black people not being allowed to vote. Both can coexist. In fact, they often do: Racism is nothing if not contradictory.

It is also frequently pragmatic. Pundits have pointed to Trump's ability to flip mostly white counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 as evidence that racism wasn't a factor in his win. Yet working-class white voters across the Rust Belt cast ballots for Obama, in many cases, believing he was a true agent for change. Theirs weren't votes for anti-racism, per se. They were votes for self-interest.

Racism frequently has just as much to do with the views you're willing to accept as with the bigotry you espouse. Many of the same working-class white voters who supported Obama four years back also seamlessly metabolized that undocumented Mexicans and Syrian refugees were now their biggest sources of concern, for instance.

We ignore these nuances to our detriment. Too often our idea of racism is rooted in the optics of Jim Crow, a world of explicit enmity and openly stated inequality. Unless it comes flagrantly advertised — in the form a "whites only" sign, a Ku Klux Klan hood or a white person screaming "nigger" in a black person's face — many Americans have trouble recognizing racism's more subtle forms when they see them.

The same logic lets us equate proximity to people of color with nonracism. "If I allow a black person in my presence," the logic goes, "I can't possibly be racist — I'd want nothing to do with them." But history paints a different picture: Racism was always more frequently about power, even in the face of closeness, than all-out spite. Jim Crow advocates employed black chauffeurs and housekeepers in their homes. Madison Amelia, a 25-year-old black Rhode Islander, recently recorded a racist pro-Trump tirade at the hands of her white boyfriend of 3 1/2 years. She broke up with him soon after.

On Sept. 4, conservative pundit Bill Mitchell tweeted a photo of Trump talking with a black person. "You notice how close Trump stands to this black man as he listens to him?" Mitchell's caption read. "No racist would ever do that." 

In case after case, though, the contrary has proven to be true: Racism repeatedly defies such pat logic. How long will it take us to learn?