With white supremacists streaming out of the shadows in the last six years, racist rhetoric aimed at various minorities has escalated exponentially in America. Still, many say we can’t know what a person believes deep down and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions: They may merely be ignorant and not racist in their heart.

The problem is, ignorant comments can have malign consequences.  

As a Jewish professor of psychology emerita at Bowdoin College, I’ve taken particular interest in the fact that news commentators and politicians usually lament racism and antisemitism as if they were distinct forms of discrimination. After former President Donald Trump’s now-infamous dinner, for example, “Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement that she condemns ‘antisemitism and white supremacy’ and that ’the president should never have had a meal or even a meeting with (prominent white supremacist) Nick Fuentes,’ ” The Washington Post reported. Kudos to her for speaking out strongly. Still, it would be helpful to understand why antisemitism can rightly be seen as a form of racism. 

First, Jews aren’t considered white by white supremacists, whose demeaning, oppressive and violent practices against Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and Muslims are also aimed at Jews. The ethnicities of these peoples vary, but hatred of them invariably brings horrific consequences. 

Although many think of antisemitism solely as a religious bias, in “On Inhumanity,” race scholar David Livingstone Smith explains that Jews in Nazi Germany were called a race of Untermenschen, literally “subhumans,” in distinction to the allegedly superior “race” of white (northern European) Christians.   

Moreover, Nazi scientists sought an objective blood-type marker that distinguished Jews from other Germans. But failing in that search (no such racialized marker exists), in 1935 Nazis adopted the Nuremberg Laws. These stipulated the defining Jewish trait to be one’s ancestry – three Jewish grandparents and you’re Jewish, regardless of whatever religious beliefs you happened to hold.


Smith also demonstrated that there is no “hidden essence” that distinguishes one race from another, as racists typically presume. Connecting this to anti-Black racism in America, the racist belief that race is “in the blood” was the basis for the one-drop rule in the American South – one Black ancestor could mean you weren’t white. According to Smith, in 1942, after finally pulling back on banning Black blood donors, the American Red Cross separated white and Black blood supplies.

Education helps, but it’s not enough. What to do? 

We must recognize that whether a person’s racist speech reflects ignorance or underlying race-based hate (or both), the proliferation of racist rhetoric helps to normalize it, thereby increasing the acceptance of racist falsehoods that intensify racist violence and oppression of minorities. This was seen in Charlottesville, where white nationalists marched while chanting the Nazi slogan “Jews will not replace us.”   

Although Jewish Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s defeat of antisemitic-commenting Doug Mastriano was heartening, Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene won a second term handily, seemingly determined to proudly press her white Christian nationalist agenda.  She is hardly alone.  

Elections matter, but so does calling out racist rhetoric for what it is. That it took several days for some Republican leaders to call out Trump for his dinner with Fuentes and antisemitic-commenting rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) is noteworthy.   

Yet some maintained that Trump is not himself a racist. Even former Vice President Mike Pence reportedly said, “I don’t believe Donald Trump is an antisemite. I don’t believe he’s a racist or a bigot … I think the president demonstrated profoundly poor judgment.”


Apply Forest Gump’s famous line about stupid to racism, “Racist is as racist does.” Given the democracy-degrading consequences of racist rhetoric, saying can be seen as a form of doing, even if it is protected by the First Amendment.

And concerning politicians who have tolerated racist rhetoric aimed at various “othered” peoples, not saying is also a form of doing: It implicitly gives license to those who seek to harm our nation, whether out of profound ignorance or out of hate.

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