America has long had a radioactive racist soup in the centre of our national life. Donald Trump thinks he is stirring it for political benefit. He’s actually doing something more dangerous.
For much of our history, the soup was deadly and uncontained, spewing radiation that led to the enslavement, terrorisation, murder and oppression of African-Americans. One hundred years ago this summer, it erupted on the streets of Washington, leaving dozens dead. The president of Howard University narrowly escaped being lynched. The murders, beatings and threats erupted in countless places during the first 200 years of American life. To visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture is to discover that the violence and mistreatment is beyond count, but not beyond imagination.
Yet, something good happened over the last 50 years. America started to get control over the dangerous radiation. We erected a containment building made up of laws; we passed statutes making the abuse and mistreatment of people by virtue of their race a crime. More important, we began enforcing the laws we already had. It was long a statutory crime to kill another human being; it just wasn’t against the law in practice to kill a black person in many places. The rights to vote and to equal treatment sounded muscular on paper, but they were weaklings in much of America. Slowly, slowly that began to change, through progress at ballot boxes and jury boxes, in police squad rooms and classrooms.
Cultures are dysfunctional when the underlying assumptions don’t line up with the values we claim to hold dear. For a very long time, America was seriously out of alignment. But we slowly worked to change the underlying assumptions.
But the containment building of law was only part of the solution. Radioactivity lasts for centuries and it can still blow the lid off the building; true safety lies in control rods, pushed down into the soup to calm it, to cool it. Those control rods in America were cultural.
The dean of organisational culture, Edgar Schein, teaches that culture has three layers: the artefacts of a culture — our symbols and signs; its espoused values — the things we say we believe; and, most important, its underlying assumptions — the way things really are.
America’s artefacts and espoused values were always impressive. We displayed across the land our inspiring Declaration that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights. We amended the Constitution after slaves were freed to make clear that black citizens were entitled to equal rights. Our problem was what laid underneath all that: the way things really were, despite what we taught in civics class.
Cultures are dysfunctional when the underlying assumptions don’t line up with the values we claim to hold dear. For a very long time, America was seriously out of alignment. But we slowly worked to change the underlying assumptions. It became unacceptable to refer to black people by racist names, to utter racist tropes, to run for office on racist themes. It took decades, but we got to a place where it generally wasn’t tolerated, in board rooms or in bars. Leaders who said racist things were often ostracised, forced to apologise, to say publicly they were deeply sorry that they acted in a way that offended our culture.
Even if they secretly harboured racist thoughts, elected officials sent a message that, whatever our differences, this wasn’t O.K. Racists watched them closely for the wink, the signal that they didn’t mean it. When they didn’t get the signal, the racism was suppressed by a new cultural norm. Racism didn’t go away, of course; the soup still bubbled. But the control rods of our culture, our underlying assumptions, reduced the danger.
Today, the control rods are being lifted. With each racist assault — on a judge, an athlete, a country, a member of Congress, or a city — and with each kind word for “very fine people on both sides,” our president allows the stew to boil and radiate more dangerously.
You can feel the effect: in the FBI’s burgeoning caseload of hate crimes and white supremacist investigations, and in a stadium full of Americans who, even knowing they are on television, chant in unison, “Send her back.” That burst of negative energy was met, not by efforts to control it, but by 13 seconds of presidential silence, the same silence that his fellow Republicans have adopted.
Our president thinks he is doing something clever. He lifts the control rods for a calculated and deeply cynical purpose: to harness the political energy unleashed. It will heat his re-election bid, he likely thinks. But unconstrained, it will damage the nation, in all directions. Only fools believe they can ride the gamma rays of hate.
According to a “manifesto” widely attributed to him, the Texas terrorist who killed at least 20 people in El Paso on Saturday wasn’t directly motivated by Donald Trump. But he is a horrific example of what can happen when the control rods are lifted.
Every American president, knowing what lies deep within our country, bears a unique responsibility to say loudly and consistently that white supremacy is illegitimate, that encouraging a politics of racial resentment can spawn violence, and that violence aimed at people by virtue of their skin colour is terrorism.
Mr. President, because of what you have done, you owe us more than condolences sent via Twitter. You must stop trying to unleash and exploit the radioactive energy of racism. You hold the biggest control rod of all. You must push it back into place, for all our sakes. The vast majority of Americans believe the core ideals of our founding documents and we expect our culture to reflect those ideals. Show us you believe in them, too.
James Comey was director of the FBI from 2013 to 2017.