Eric Trump on Wednesday visited the Fox and Friends talk show to defend his father, President Donald Trump, against accusations of racism.
“My father sees one color: green,” Trump told hosts Brian Kilmeade, Ainsley Earhardt and Steve Doocy. “That’s all he cares about, he cares about the economy. He does not see race. He’s the least racist person I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
The president famously launched his bid for the White House in 2015 by referring to undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” He feuds publicly with black athletes while ignoring their demonstrably salient pleas for police to stop killing their people. Last week, he referred to Africa as a collection of “shithole countries,” adding that he prefers immigrants from Norway to those from Haiti and El Salvador.
“[You] also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” the president told reporters in August, referring to the hordes of neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
But ignoring these for a moment, it’s worth examining the assumption that there’s tension between being a racist and only caring about money. The reality is that racism, as it exists in the United States, is a fabricated system of social organizing. It would not have been invented in the first place were it not highly profitable for somebody. Nor would it persist today.
This has been true throughout U.S. history. In early America, those who stood to gain the most from a racial hierarchy were the white landowners who were afraid of their servants, black and white. In the colony of Virginia — the country’s first enduring English settlement, founded in 1607 — indentured servitude was the predominant system by which labor was mined from residents, according to historian Edmund S. Morgan. Poor English people worked off debts they’d accrued during the trip to the New World by harvesting tobacco for wealthy Virginians.
These servants were typically released from their contracts after a period of several years. But as time went on, there weren’t enough laborers to keep up with the colony’s workload. Virginia’s leaders responded by creating new laws designed to keep servants indentured for longer periods of time, to transform free people into servants or to pull former servants back.
“Virginians coped with the problem in several ways,” Morgan writes in his 1975 book about the period, American Slavery, American Freedom. “By creating an artificial scarcity of land, which drove freemen back into servitude; by extending terms of service; by inflicting severe penalties for killing the hogs that offered easy food without work.”
The result was a colony of angry men and women “continually on the brink of rebellion,” Morgan writes. And as their discontent grew, so did the apparent advantages of slavery for landowners. Enslaved blacks had been present in the colony since 1619. But it wasn’t until roughly 40 years later that residents’ life expectancies were high enough that buying slaves — who were more expensive, but stayed slaves for life — became a better financial investment than leasing servants on the cheap for five years.
Despite this, black slaves and white servants were able to find enough common ground to justify uniting in revolt against their masters, most famously during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Wealthy Virginians responded in kind.
“The answer to [this] problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism,” Morgan writes, “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt.
“By a series of acts,” he writes, “the assembly deliberately did what it could to foster the contempt of whites for blacks and Indians. In 1670, it forbade free Negroes and Indians, ‘though baptised,’ to own Christian servants. In 1680 it prescribed thirty lashes on the bare back ‘if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any Christian.’”
This last law was uniquely impactful because it placed white servants “psychologically on a par with masters,” allowing them to beat and brutalize slaves without fear of reprisal. Such was the peculiar legacy of using racism as an organizing tool in American society. It is apparent, from Morgan’s research, that enslavement predated racial apartheid in the U.S. But slavery was explicitly racialized — and set the stage for the centuries of anti-black racism that followed — as a means of consolidating whiteness as its own caste. The primary goal was to scuttle interracial unity among servants and slaves and, most importantly, to keep landowners wealthy.
This is relevant to the Trump presidency. If Trump is truly just concerned about the economy, he has a very race-conscious way of expressing it. His enthusiasm for Norwegian immigrants and their purported economic benefits, paired with his contempt for those from Africa, Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador and majority-Muslim countries, and his expressed admiration for neo-Nazi protesters, is more than mere coincidence. And his knack for drumming up racial hostility to rouse his white base has granted him access to new and vast streams of revenue in the White House, such as pressuring foreign dignitaries to stay at his properties to gain favor and ushering in tax breaks for the wealthy, such as him and his family.
But the ignorance of history that allows his son, Eric Trump, to suggest that caring about the economy and using racism to advance one’s financial and political interests are at odds is just as telling. Love of money is not a substitute for bigotry, nor was it ever. Rather, the two are often conjoined. The racists who only see “green” are the oldest kind.