Racism. White supremacy. White nationalism. So many people are involved in conversations about whether or not President Trump can accurately be called a white supremacist that ABC news saw fit to publish an article providing essential definitions.
In her August 19, 2019 article entitled “White supremacy and white nationalism have re-entered our political conversation. But what do they mean?” Elizabeth Thomas aims to define racism, white supremacy, and white nationalism in order to help facilitate the national conversation. Unfortunately, Thomas omits two critical terms that are essential to understanding our current situation: institutional racism and structural racialization.
far too few hours have been spent outlining how the policies promoted and enacted by the Trump administration reinforce and aggravate structural racialization
While hundreds of hours of national and regional media attention focus on whether Trump is a white supremicist, far too few hours have been spent outlining how the policies promoted and enacted by the Trump administration reinforce and aggravate structural racialization, the system of social structures that produces and reproduces cumulative, durable, race-based inequalities.
Racialized outcomes don’t require racist actors
In a workbook called “Race, Power and Policy: Dismantling Structural Racism,” Sandra Hinson, Richard Heasley and Nathaniel Wiesenberg at the Grassroots Policy Project remind us that structural racialization is built into institutions and practices. As they write, “The thing to remember about structural racialization is that racialized outcomes no longer require racist actors. It is built-into the institutions and practices. Getting rid of a racist person does not change the practices. The critical aspect of racism that we must address today is the accumulation and incorporation of long-standing racialized practices into all of our social and economic structures.”
While I believe Trump is a racist, and that his racist and vitriolic rhetoric signals official support for and incentives to racist and violent actions, I am also concerned that his larger-than-life media persona is designed to distract attention from Trump administration efforts to further embed racialized practices into our social and economic structures. The policies this administration is enacting require as much or more sustained critique as does Trump’s personal behavior. Replacing Trump is not enough.
Applying a racial justice lens to Trump administration policies
Hinson, Heasley and Wiesenberg describe characteristics of policies that exacerbate structural racism: they allow the segregation of resources and risks (like toxic dumping policies); they create/maintain inherited group disadvantage or advantage (failing to acknowledge historical injustices, facilitating the transfer of intergenerational wealth); they allow human life to be differentially valued based on race (as with our current immigration policies); and they limit self-determination of certain groups of people.
In order to bring a racial justice lens to policy analyses, Hinson, Heasley and Wiesenberg argue that we have to ask who benefits from the policy, and who is burdened by the policy? Can burdens be more equitably distributed? How are people of color included in the decision-making process, and what criteria were used to make the decision? Can equity be better addressed, and disparities closed? What does an equitable, participative, and effective public process look like?
Immigration policies that punish immigrants
Immigration policies under this current administration are more racist, more destructive, more insidious in resurrecting white supremacy as an explicit value in the US than anything we’ve seen in recent years.
In a powerful op-ed called “Why I Resigned as an Immigration Judge,” published in the LA Times on August 4, 2019, Ilyce Shugall walks readers through Trump administration policies that facilitate structural racism. For example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions increased case quotas for judges. Instead of hearing two cases a day, one in each allotted time slot, judges were instructed to hear three cases beginning immediately. Two cases had to be squeezed into one time slot regardless of their complexity. In addition, judges were told they could have only one interpreter per time slot, whether or not defendants in the two cases spoke the same language or spoke English.
According to Shugall, these new administrative procedures made it much harder for judges to “uphold the constitutional protections required to properly adjudicate cases” and she ultimately quit. As she predicted, the Trump Administration has continued to work to embed structural racism more deeply into the justice system. For example, they attempted to make individuals seeking asylum ineligible if they did not present themselves at a port of entry, while at the same time preventing asylum seekers from being processed at ports of entry.
In addition, the Trump Administration has moved to replace interpreters with a video at asylum seekers’ first appointment where their rights and responsibilities are laid out. In this instance, the US government’s previous commitment to upholding due process rights for those with limited English proficiency (LEP) as outlined in Executive Order 13166 and backed by the US Department of Justice, is being set aside ostensibly in the name of cost-cutting. Clearly, this move also reinforces the differential valuing of human life based on race, ethnicity, and language.
Environmental Protection Agency rules weaken air quality protections
This summer, the EPA issued its new “Affordable Clean Energy” rule (ACE), repealing and replacing the 2015 Clean Power Plan (CPP) which aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. The CPP established state-specific targets for reducing emissions from their electric power sector as a whole. The ACE rule instead directs states to establish emission reduction levels for individual power plants.
Standards set under the ACE rule will be significantly less stringent than those set by the CPP. A June 20, 2019 blog post for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, based at Columbia University, notes that according to EPA, “the ACE Rule will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by just 11 million short tons in 2030, whereas the CPP would have delivered emissions reductions of 415 million tons (both relative to a no-action baseline).”
EPA assumes CO2 emissions have only localized consequences
This intended reduction in carbon dioxide emissions shifts the burden of burning coal for power from fossil-fuel energy companies and their stockholders to people and other species. In another administrative move providing a textbook example of structural racism, the EPA report on ACE explains its decision to exclude consideration of people and places outside the US by citing to a circular:
“Circular A-4 states that analysis of economically significant proposed and final regulations ‘should focus on benefits and costs that accrue to citizens and residents of the United States.’ We follow this guidance by adopting a domestic perspective in our central analysis.”
It may be that the EPA staffers who wrote this report understood the specious reasoning behind Circular A-4—which ignores the fact that the climate crisis adheres to no nation-state boundaries, and it’s impossible for any country to extricate itself from the planet. Unlike the immigration judge who resigned, however, the writers of the ACE report labored on.
EPA impact analysis based on faulty assumptions
In the initial regulatory impact analysis (RIA) that went along with the ACE rule proposal, EPA estimated that replacing CPP with ACE would result in an additional 470-1400 premature deaths; 48,000 cases of exacerbated asthma; 42,000 lost work days; and 21,000 missed school days.
Faced with these estimates, the EPA revised its methodology, and claimed that the ACE rule would avoid 50-122 premature deaths in 2030, as well as 14,000 asthma attacks, 4,600 lost work days, and 8,200 missed school days. These improvements in health outcomes were achieved by a rhetorical sleight of hand.
In the first scenario, the Trump administration assumed that the ACE would replace the CPP. Standards would go down, regulation would ease, and the concomitant health outcomes would go down as well. In the revised methodology, the Trump administration assumed that there were no federal standards governing CO2 emissions. Instead, they posited that the CPP was repealed, hence no standards. The ACE standards could then be compared to no standards, with the result that health outcomes “improved” under the ACE rule.
Public policies that promote racial justice
John Dewey once wrote that “the public has no hands except those of human beings.” Donald Trump and his administration is directing people in government agencies to enact policies that are separating resources and risks, maintaining inherited group advantages and disadvantages, allowing human life to be differentially valued based on race, and limiting the self-determination of certain groups of people. Far too many people are going along with these plans. We cannot create the future we need unless and until this changes.
Emily Lardner currently lives in Aberdeen, WA.