Americans are plagued by the belief that racism is best proven through speech. If there is no recording of a store clerk or police officer (or president) using a racial slur, then there’s nothing to discuss. Defining racism as who does or does not say “nigger,” for instance, boils bigotry down to mere language rather than realizing it is a more silent and comprehensive web of oppression. For people like Donald Trump and Omarosa Manigault Newman, the current “nigger” debate is almost made-for-TV in its simplicity.
Manigault Newman, easily the most memorable contestant from The Apprentice, went on to become one of Trump’s most caustic surrogates during the 2016 campaign, and later joined his administration for an opaque role. She was summarily booted from the White House in December, but, even then, she denied his reported racism. Now, months after her firing, Manigault Newman has a new memoir, Unhinged, in which she attempts to lend credence to the long-debated rumors that there exists unaired Apprentice footage of Trump casually saying the word “nigger.”
Manigault Newman does allege in the book that Trump displayed other racial ugliness, such as dismissing Harriet Tubman for her looks and having to be coached not to say “you people” during his infamous Detroit church visit in 2016. But does Manigault Newman cite Trump’s race-based housing discrimination, his family separation horror, his racist Muslim travel ban or his endorsement of police brutality? No. After ignoring his persecution of the Central Park Five, his birther crusade against President Obama and his manifold expressions of bigotry while in office, she would now have us believe that Trump uttering the word “nigger” is the smoking gun.
Whether Manigault Newman is in pursuit of a bestseller or an invite to the proverbial cookout, neither seem to be guaranteed. The book isn’t selling as she might have hoped, likely because America sees her as a convenient convert. But it is possible that Manigault Newman’s claim could damage Trump in a way that his previous behavior and policies have not. The United States is now a place where words are the best prima facie evidence of a person’s racism. There very well may be voters who won’t believe that Trump is a bigot until they hear him use a racial slur.
But even if the alleged “nigger” tape surfaces, I highly doubt that it would move the needle — especially within his own party. According to a CBS News poll released last week, while 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s “handling of racial issues,” 83 percent of Republicans approve. The truth is, there is likely a significant portion of Trump voters who, upon seeing or hearing the tape, would support the president more fervently.
An America in which racism is only proven by an utterance works to Trump’s advantage. Any hope that he would suffer political consequences from slandering women or minorities vanished with the “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape. If and when we actually hear Trump say “nigger,” the president and his defenders will likely point to Lyndon Johnson’s liberal use of the word, making the argument that someone could be a champion of civil rights while being simultaneously racist.
Trump is benefiting from the fracas — a scandal that would be career-ending for any other politician. Looking like a pugilist after being attacked is part of his personality, and he has made that toxic behavior a marketable brand. Even those of us who criticize Trump’s behavior can feed his sound and fury. He’s still swinging back wildly at Manigault Newman, calling her names like “lowlife” and “dog,” the latter an apparent PG substitute for “bitch.” The White House had trouble defending the insults, and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that she “can’t guarantee” that Trump didn’t say “nigger.” But this is where we end up when we get more excited by racist words than racist actions.
What is even worse is that Manigault Newman doesn’t seem to realize, or care, that she is helping Trump. By dwelling on what the president allegedly said rather than the provable damage he has done to communities of color, Manigault Newman fixes nothing. This oversimplification of racism-through-rhetoric is dangerous in an America whose criminal justice system so often prioritizes the question of biased intent over the effects of bigotry.
As a country, we have trouble even agreeing what racism looks and sounds like. And the issue didn’t suddenly sprout up when Manigault Newman went looking for press. A July Quinnipiac poll found that 49 percent of Americans consider Trump to be a racist, while 47 percent disagreed. At the time, folks such as CNN’s Chris Cillizza were flabbergasted that we now live in a nation where half of the people consider the president who once led the birther crusade against his predecessor to be racist, while others of us were surely wondering why it was only 49 percent. At this point, it’s almost insulting to list the ways in which Trump has given cultural quarter to neo-Nazis and furthered their policy goals — but it seems that we must keep doing so, as long as our fellow Americans insist that we are required to plumb the depths of Trump’s soul to prove his racism, all while denying the results of his work for white supremacy. Effect be damned, we are urged to verify his intent.
But even in the midst of this charade, there is a recognition of the innate villainy of racism. Manigault Newman and those helping her sell her book understand that alleging that Trump said “nigger” is meant to damage him. However, she claims to have known that he did so before he was elected president, and claims to have consulted with fellow aide Katrina Pierson to smooth it over with the public. Accepting a job working for a known bigot apparently falls within Manigault Newman’s accepted range of behavior. Now, she seeks to monetize her own lack of integrity while insulting our intelligence. Her book and her celebrity will continue to collect dust as we fight these old fights, asserting that men like Trump don’t have to call us “nigger” in order to effectively treat us like one.
Watch this Jay Smooth classic about the utility of “You have done something racist” vs. “You’re a racist!”