Controversial statements do not appear to harm the careers of politicians making them, writes Gavin Esler
We are witnessing the normalisation of racism, from the US to Myanmar
The former tennis champion Boris Becker recently bemoaned the fact that racism is becoming socially acceptable in Germany. An MP from the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party had called the tennis champion’s eldest son Noah Becker a “little half-negro”. The MP Jens Maier was given a mild telling-off by the AfD leadership. Meanwhile in the United States, a newspaper called the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial which has caused a furore among some of its journalists. The editorial entitled "Reason as racism: an immigration debate gets derailed" claimed that “calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism. The charge is pernicious. The accuser doesn’t need to prove it. It simply hangs over the accused like a great human stain. It has become not a descriptive term for a person who believes in the superiority of one race over another, but a term of malice and libel.”
The editorial appeared as a defence of US president Donald Trump reportedly describing African nations as "s***hole countries”. Mr Trump’s use of the word was denied by the White House – although the credibility of Mr Trump's White House on matters of fact is not particularly high. Mr Trump’s on-the-record comments about racial matters serve to confirm in the minds of his critics that the term “racist” is appropriate. When running for the presidency, he spoke of Mexicans as rapists. He claimed that his predecessor Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (Mr Obama was born in Hawaii.) He pointed to a black man in a crowd and said: “Oh, look at my African-American over there.” (The list of such Trump comments is very long.) Mr Trump’s candidacy was also endorsed by David Duke, a former leader of America’s best-known racist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents 150 reporters and other staff on the Post-Gazette, strongly criticised the reason as racism editorial. The guild called it “shameful and unconscionable … an abomination" and suggested it was a “mindless, sycophantic embrace of racist values and outright bigotry espoused by this country’s president”.
In Britain, the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has had similar accusations levelled against him in the past. He said that Mr Obama was "part-Kenyan" and had an "ancestral dislike" of Britain as a colonial power when the then US president removed Winston Churchill's bust from the Oval Office. He once wrote that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed touring the Commonwealth because of warm welcomes from "cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”. Mr Johnson also suggested that in the Congo, former prime minister Tony Blair would be met with "watermelon smiles”. He later apologised for his comments.
Read more from Gavin Esler:
Three episodes from three different countries – all instructive, even if readers might take differing views as to whether these comments are all examples of racism. But two things stand out. The first is that making such controversial comments does not appear to have harmed the careers of the politicians involved. Mr Trump was elected president after making some of his more outrageous racially charged statements. His success does not come in spite of such statements. It is because of them. His former mentor Steve Bannon once argued that the more Mr Trump forced the Democrats to talk about race, the better Republicans would do in elections – and he might be right. In Britain, Mr Johnson’s comments came before he was elevated to one of the top positions in the British government. He is often described as a “colourful” figure or a buffoon, descriptions which suggest those taking offence are at fault for lacking a sense of humour. And in Germany there is no sign Mr Maier’s career is in jeopardy, even though calling Noah Becker a “half-negro” has obvious echoes of the Nazi word for a mixed-race person, a “Mischling” (mixed blood).
But the second thing which stands out from these well-publicised examples is that Mr Becker might be correct in suggesting racist attitudes have for some become socially acceptable. Racism has always existed but in recent years it was relegated to being a subtext to serious politics. Racists often used code words. While pursuing his own political career, Mr Duke used to rant about “welfare mothers” and “welfare queens”. These terms were understood by many voters to refer to African Americans. Mr Trump no longer uses code words when he says that Mexicans are rapists. He clearly feels no need to use the disguised vocabulary of the former KKK leader.
We are witnessing the normalisation of racism. It stretches from Eastern Europe to the US and as far as Myanmar and its mistreatment of the Rohingya. Of course, sometimes the words “racist” or “fascist” are merely terms of abuse. But too often they are accurate descriptions. Since I am Scottish, my means test as to whether speech is offensive or racist is to take out the name of the ethnic group involved and substitute the words Scot or Scotland instead. If the US president called Scotland a “s***hole country” where all Scots are “rapists”, what would I think? Try it with your own country, ethnic group or religion, and consider – to paraphrase the Post-Gazette – whether the result sounds like reason or racism to you.