This is Part Three of a three-part series on “Race, Racism and Morality in America.”
We conclude our interrogation of “race, racism and morality in America” by bookending lamentations of Barack Obama in 2016 with a righteous stand by Sen. John McCain in 2008 and juxtaposing them against the election and continued support of the current president of the United States. In a memoir released earlier this year, “The World as It Is,” former Obama advisor Benjamin Rhodes writes of Obama being shaken and sinking into “rare self-doubt” as he struggled to understand Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. “What if we were wrong? Maybe we pushed too far,” Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe. Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.” Indeed, Obama worried that he may have “misjudged his own influence on American history.” He had … and he was not alone.
Part I: Was James Baldwin right when he called white Americans moral monsters?
By lifting his election, an admittedly important and encouraging moment, out of historical context, Obama and others were forced to retroactively wrestle with what the coming of Trump meant. Was it an example of a master con-artist’s ability to dupe an enlightened country or some sort of odd phenomenon representative of a point-instant existential national moral crisis? Neither of these explanations survives serious interrogation, for citizens who supported (and support) Trump knew exactly what they were doing and it is was not the first time we have witnessed disturbingly brutal American retrenchment.
One would think doing good would encourage individual citizens, and the country as a whole, to do even more good. Unfortunately, that is not the case. America’s willful ignorance and socio-political myopia related to Trump is just the latest example of the country’s capacity to morally start, stop and throw itself into reverse as it sinks into the stinking, polluted waters of mean-spirited racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, misogyny and nationalism again and again. We have seen it after the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808, the end of the Civil War in 1865, the end of Reconstruction in 1877, allowing women to vote in 1920 and so on.
Part II: ‘Don’t be like a Tucker Carlson,’ says Ricky Jones after TV exchange
All the above events have shown America’s tendency to engage in “moral licensing.” Scholars are familiar with the concept and it has also been engaged in the public sphere by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell. Still, it is not familiar to many in the main. Put simply, moral licensing speaks to the fact that many individuals and groups feel more justified in doing something bad once they participate in (or are party to) an act perceived as good. They then defend their bad behavior when challenged by citing the good in which they (supposedly) participated.
For example, moral licensing resulting from the elections of Obama has elevated overt white American racial intolerance (in word and deed) to dangerous levels. Many decry suppositions that America still suffers from deeply entrenched racism as, at best, overstated because the country twice elected a black president. Of course, they conveniently ignore the fact that Obama did not receive a majority of the white vote in 2008 (43 percent) or 2012 (39 percent).
While it would be disingenuous to deify John McCain on the occasion of his passing, he did provide an example of a man who, despite party or politics, remembered his moral center when pressed. As he flailed before the 2008 Obama presidential campaign juggernaut, a Republican voter stated she feared an Obama presidency because he was an “Arab” (and, therefore, supposedly Muslim) at a McCain rally. McCain shook his head and seized the microphone in disagreement. He was having none of it. “No ma’am, no ma’am,” he said as the rabid conservative crowd booed him. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not [an Arab].” That’s morality.
From July: Fox News host Tucker Carlson calls Louisville professor ‘racist’ on air
In 2016, America regressed to its moral mean (pun intended). It lashed out. It pushed back. It returned to its idea of “great” and Donald Trump epitomized it. Trump – the grabber, the liar, the tweeter, the bigot, the railer against “flippers.” Trump, the man who is so wracked with pettiness and rancor that he refused to keep the White House’s American flag lowered to half-staff for hours on the occasion of John McCain’s death. This is not a point-instant anomaly. It is who we are. Trump is America and America is Trump. He is not the disease; he is the symptom. He is the ultimate example of what America’s moral center is right now … and it isn’t pretty. I guess it’s all copacetic. At least he hasn’t shot anybody on New York’s 5th Avenue yet.
Dr. Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. He is the host of “The Ricky Jones Show with 12 Mr. FTC” on iHeart Radio. Visit him at rickyljones.com. His column appears every third Thursday in the Courier Journal.