Donald Trump at the RNC in July Credit: joeff davis

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made Chicago’s gun violence problems the linchpin of his “law and order” message yet again. During a 20-minute discussion about “racial healing” at the first presidential debate, Trump bypassed Hillary Clinton’s remarks about systemic racism in law enforcement and instead doubled down on calls to revive stop and frisk in Chicago and other major cities—despite the fact that this tactic has been ruled unconstitutional principally because the practice disproportionately affects minorities.

Trump’s comments during the debate align with his campaign’s promotion of the view that talk of institutional racism is “the rhetoric of division.” In other words, he’d have us believe that talking about racism is the problem rather than rather than acknowledging the problem of racism itself.

This mind-set, which sadly of course long predates Trump’s candidacy, dismisses or casts doubts about the existence of systemic racism. So much so that it’s taken more than 200 police killings of black men and women—and countless stories, investigations, and protests—just to convince some people that systemic racism is real and problematic. For these people at least, the result of all this fervor has been a reformed consciousness around issues of race. Yet recent polling suggests that there’s still a sizable fraction of people who harbor more subtle, insidious racist beliefs—and who can count on coddling from their peers.

“Just a week before the first presidential debate, a YouGov/Huffington Post survey showed that more than half of all Americans don’t believe being prejudiced makes someone a “bad person.” Even more disturbing, roughly a quarter of those polled said holding negative views of black people makes someone “neither prejudiced, nor a bad person.” Thirty-two percent said the same regarding Muslims.

Folks, this is what happens when systemic racism gets treated as a matter of opinion and not as a fact of life: it allows white supremacy to persist. Trump’s campaign has breathed new life into this problem by galvanizing overt racists—people once driven underground by the civil rights movement who have now reemerged as mainstream. But the survey suggests that even before the current election cycle many people have continued to allow subtler forms of racial prejudice to fester by looking the other way.

In the constellation of Trump voters, some people support his views outright. But others will look past his repugnant beliefs, perhaps holding their noses at the ballot box, and vote for him anyhow.

“It’s not that I love Trump, I get how everyone hates his ego, and he’s had a couple bad one-liners throughout his 30 or 40 years,” a real estate appraiser who attended Trump’s recent golf fund-raiser in Bolingbrook said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “He’s not a perfect person. But he’s not the status quo.”

I don’t know how on earth you could construe calling Mexicans “rapists and murderers,” proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the country, calling a Venezuelan Miss Universe winner “Miss Housekeeping,” or condoning and inciting the beatings of Black Lives Matter protesters, among numerous other examples of racist remarks and actions, just a “couple bad one-liners.” Voters like these may not realize what they’re doing, but when people overlook or take a neutral position on racism, they’re tacitly approving it.

If you think the “deplorables” are the only ones at fault, then it’s time to dig deeper.

Part of that problem lies in a broader unwillingness to recognize and challenge racism when it rears its ugly head. Bigots like Trump often find ways to conceal their otherwise brazen disgust for people of color. For every outwardly racist thing he’s said, he’s followed up with half a dozen other coded remarks designed to evade scrutiny.

For a recent example, let’s examine Trump’s address at the Polish National Alliance, in Chicago’s Sauganash neighborhood, delivered just two days after the debate. He pledged his support to Poland and Polish-Americans, while promising to impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants (his new spin on his Muslim-ban proposal) and naming Syrian refugees as a threat to America’s security. Trump also praised Poland’s opposition to bringing in Syrian refugees, and drew parallels between his campaign and the right-wing movement that prompted the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union.

“We want our independence back,” Trump said. “We want our freedom back. We don’t want to take people into our country that we don’t want. We don’t want to take people into our country that possibly have very bad intentions.”

But Trump’s remarks in Chicago demonstrate that his problem isn’t so much with immigration in general as much as it is with the immigration of nonwhites in particular. As Dara Lind previously noted at Vox, research shows that for many white Americans, immigration isn’t so much a question of legal versus illegal; it’s about protecting their idea of American culture. In so many words, it’s “Make America white again,” even though, as any Native American would tell you, this land wasn’t white in the first place.

So does failing to call Trump out for such beliefs make his less-racist supporters “bad people?”

Generally speaking, I refrain from characterizing other people in absolute terms such as good or bad, given that individuals are usually much more complex and nuanced.

But the survey results—and the relative success of Trump’s campaign—suggest that a good number of Americans are tacitly giving a free pass to people with racist attitudes, despite the real-world consequences of those beliefs. And I’d say that’s pretty bad. Like all human beings, these voters have the potential to do good—but they also have the potential to cause great harm. And on matters of racism, their tacit approval wreaks havoc on people of color. It’s precisely what Hillary Clinton was getting at when she called the other half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables“—a remark she shouldn’t have had to walk back in the context of this election.

But if you think the “deplorables” are the only ones at fault, then it’s time to dig deeper. The results of the poll held up consistently with Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—suggesting that this casual attitude towards bigotry can’t be limited to one corner of the GOP. It’s everyone’s problem. Even in a Democratic stronghold like Chicago, systemic racism remains apparent in public budget priorities, in policing, and many other facets of city life. Yet most people never do a thing about it.

Retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid called Trump the “Frankenstein monster” Republicans built; but broader acceptance of racism helped create this beast too.

And until more people recognize and confront all forms of racism, bigotry will continue to be the problem we all live with.   v