Could Trump’s attack on ‘political correctness’ help the U.S. discuss race?

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(L to R) Sally Kohn, Robby Soave, Jamilah King, Moustafa Bayoumi and Todd Zwillich speaking at "The UnConvention: Political Correctness, From Left to Right," a panel held at The Greene Space. 10/18/16

When Donald Trump tells supporters at his rallies that he rejects “political correctness,” he’s usually met with cheers. It’s a line that encapsulates white racial resentment, argues Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator.

Kohn spoke as part of The UnConvention panel, Political Correctness, From Left to Right at WNYC’s Greene Space in New York City on Tuesday. She said political correctness originally was “the idea that we should all treat each other respectfully and with basic decency.” It was supposed to create a safe space and allow honest talk. For Trump and others on the right, though, it’s viewed as shutting down straight talk.

These days, it’s a term “mostly used by people who hate the idea of it,” noted Robby Soave, associate editor at Reason.com, speaking on the panel. “What they see political correctness as is being too sensitive.”

That’s one of the reasons, he says, that Donald Trump appeals to many poor white men: It’s not that they agree with his policies necessarily, but that he’s being open about the things they feel they’re not allowed to say. “When I talk to Trump supporters, they’ll tell me that they don’t consider him a thinker or a policy person. He’s a cultural hero to him the way that Beyonce is to people on the left,” Soave said. “They see him as an icon of resistance to people they don’t like.”

Unsurprisingly, these warring definitions — one claiming we’re so attentive to the feelings of others that it’s preventing candid discussion, the other saying we’re not sensitive enough and it’s preventing candid discussion — have made it difficult to have meaningful conversations in this election.

“Frankly, it’s just a way of shutting down debate,” author and City University of New York professor Moustafa Bayoumi said.

Many students, especially on campuses, need the safe space provided by political correctness, he argues. “When you have people who are coming from marginalized communities and they’re expressing themselves and they’re challenging what have been norms for a very long time in this country, ... I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I don’t think most people call that political correctness, they just call that speech.”

Jamilah King, a senior staff writer at Mic, noted that the realities of life for people of color make the abstract talk of free speech a lot less simple. White people don’t understand, she said, “how deeply traumatic it is to be a student of color on predominantly white college campuses.”

While “the feelings of white students” may be bruised when colleges cancel events or put limits on protests and petitions that have racial overtones, she argued that “the same is true when students of color are harassed, are asked really stupid questions, when you have professors who refuse to learn how to say your name. These aren’t just small things that happen on college campuses, these are deeply traumatic things.”

Yet Todd Zwillich, Washington correspondent for The Takeaway and moderator of the panel, wondered if Trump’s attack on political correctness could open up debate in the US over race. “If you remember back to Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama, so little of this was part of the discussion,” he said. “It’s remarkable, I think, the transformation we’ve undergone in four years.”

Soave of Reason.com said he sees a danger in political correctness. “Maybe we didn’t see Trump coming, because we established norms where people who thought like that weren’t saying so. It’s better that’s it out in the open, it’s better that it can challenged and people who think this way can be persuaded they are wrong.”

Bayoumi agrees that Trump may have done the country a great service. “I have worked for 15 years to expose Islamophobia. Many say it doesn’t exist. I don’t think you can say that any more.”

“I think the people who are most shocked by Trumpism are [the] white liberal class in this country that doesn’t know that [this view] actually exists, that it’s actually part of daily life for people in this country.” Bayoumi said. He argues that the disenfranchised in this country, whether poor whites or people of color or others have a lot in common.

“We have so much to gain by understanding each other's struggles and the connections between each other’s struggles.”

This article is part of The UnConvention, coverage and conversation that highlights the issues and voices of young voters, in partnership with 92Y and Mic.