Supporters welcome Ilhan Omar at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport on July 19, 2019

Why editors are so reluctant to label Donald Trump a racist

Is racist the new four-letter word?

On Wednesday night at a rally in North Carolina, President Trump falsely claimed that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a refugee from Somalia who became a U.S. citizen when she was a child, was a supporter of Al Qaeda. Then he stood and watched as his supporters chanted “Send her back! Send her back! Send her back..!” That rally capped several days of Trump’s well-publicized incitement against the four junior congresswomen known as the Squad — Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Presley, and Ilhan Omar — who have been vociferously critical of President Trump and his policies.

“If they don’t love [America],” said the president, “tell them to leave it.”

In their coverage of this story, legacy media outlets ranging from The New York Times to CNN finally embraced the term “racist” to describe the president’s words. Their use of this word became a story in itself, with Trump supporters denying the president’s words were racist. “It’s not racist to say love it or leave it,” said Senator Lindsey Graham. He added: “A Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back.”


Even if one were to agree with Graham that “send her back” was not necessarily racist, one would be hard-pressed to reconcile the core right to freedom of expression in a democracy with the idea that an immigrant who exercised that right by criticizing the president’s policies should be deported.

Other Republican representatives were clearly uncomfortable with the “send her back” chant, but they didn’t want to label the president a racist, so they split the difference: The crowd was wrong, said Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN), but the president “didn’t have a racist bone in his body.” Emmer did not comment on the fact that the president stood silently for 13 seconds as the crowd he’d been working into a frenzy for the previous quarter of an hour chanted rhythmically.

Trump is, of course, notorious for his misogyny. But besides their gender, the four Democratic representatives he attacked are also all people of color. Bernie Sanders shares the same political views, but Trump did not single him out. Sanders is, of course, a white man. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi — who has a testy relationship with the Squad — successfully pushed through a House resolution to condemn Trump for his racist comments, overriding Republican objections and a parliamentary ruling that deemed the term an insult and thus not allowed.

The partisan argument over what constitutes racism is the driving force behind the reluctance of legacy media outlets to use the term. Editors are afraid that if they label someone a racist, the media outlet will no longer be considered an objective source of information. There is a whole separate argument over whether or not objectivity is possible or desirable in these troubled times. When, for example, The New York Times published a controversial profile of a white supremacist that made him sound like an ordinary guy who loved his family but happened to hold some extremist views, critics charged that the paper had lent credibility to a Nazi by presenting a humanizing portrait in the pages of the country’s most prestigious newspaper.

One expert argued that using the term “racist” was counter-productive because it made the person accused of racism defensive, and that the ensuing argument over whether or not the term was appropriate deflected attention from meaningful and substantive policy discussions.

But as Trump engages increasingly in overt racist incitement, the legacy media are re-examining their editorial policy. Over the past two days, The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and other prominent reporting platforms have all used the term “racist,” to describe the president’s comments. As Maria Bustillos explains in the Columbia Journalism Review: “The language of distance and delicacy is based in good faith; where good faith is absent, delicate language does little more than normalize things like racism and cruelty.” In other words, sometimes going high when others are going low can be counter-productive.