If you make an offensive comment about an entire set of people, but claim to have friends in that group, does that mean what you said can’t be considered racist?
It’s an old excuse, and two un-connected yet wholly political figures have embraced it as their defense in the past week.
It all started with a question GOP front-runner Donald Trump got during a rally late last week in New Hampshire. The questioner argued that President Obama is a Muslim and a faulty president because of it, and Trump made no effort to correct the man.
Then came Trump’s comments about having friends in all the right places. The Donald said on ABC’s “This Week,” Sunday that “Most [Muslims] are fabulous. And I have friends that are Muslims… But there is a problem with militancy, and it is something that is going to have to be solved.”
That same day Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I have friends that are Muslims. They are great people, they are amazing people.”
He continued, “You have radicals that are doing things. I mean, it wasn’t people from Sweden that blew up the World Trade Center, Jake.”
The defense found a new champion again Tuesday morning, this time from Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who has made headlines recently for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, something she is legally bound to do.
In an interview with ABC, Davis, who argues God and the Bible are among the chief reasons why she refused to grant licenses to gay couples, told reporter Paula Faris, “I have friends that are gay and lesbians, and they know where I stand. And we don’t’ agree on these issues and we’re ok because we respect each other.”
Asked if Davis would deny her friends the right to marry, she said she has already, “I can’t put my name on a license that doesn’t represent what God ordained marriage to be.”
The arguments used by both Trump and Davis were quick to raise eyebrows. Claiming to have friends in one group is all fine and dandy, some civil rights groups said, unless you’re using it to reason away, or excuse, your controversial comments about a certain minority group.
“It’s amazing that somebody who appears to be a sophisticated business man is that clueless and tone deaf about the things he says,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “He says he loves the Mexicans, he loves the blacks, he loves the Muslims. He doesn’t even realize, apparently how that stuff sounds.”
The logic is rooted in a troubled history. Be it about Jewish people, African-Americans or gay people, similar defenses have been used in the past to explain away generalizations made against minority groups.The reasoning both Trump and Davis used has become a catchall defense.
“The excuse that was used years and years ago, that ‘some of my best friends are black,’ was as lame of an excuse then as today and it hasn’t improved with age at all,” said Lisa Navarrete—spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights advocacy group. “I don’t understand how it’s supposed to inoculate someone from saying what they are saying isn’t bigoted or offensive, or absolve them.”
At a campaign rally for Trump in Dallas, I spoke to a number of people who used the “I have friends” argument to defend their opinions. Most of the comments were pointed at immigrants and Latinos. Generalizations and stereotypes about a group of people that exist in the thousands in the U.S. were thrown around like basic facts — qualified with a promise that the points weren’t made maliciously, they were the God’s honest truth.
One man in his 40s from Dallas told me:
“(W)hen you have a mass movement across the border and most are criminals, you hear horror stories about rape and it’s horrible for people who live on the border. And they overwhelm our school system… I’m a Christian. I’m not against the Latino population. I have a lot of them that are friends, but no matter who is coming…it has to be legal and orderly.”
But Navarrete of NCLR emphasizes that just because you have friends in a group doesn’t excuse you from saying something offensive — one fact doesn’t negate the other.
“Just because you have friends who are Latino, or acquaintances, and you know Latinos, doesn’t mean that you can’t hold bigoted views or it precludes you from saying offensive things,” she said. “It’s not an either or, it can be both.”
For Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the comments people make prove how prevalent some extremist and racist ideas are.
“They are out of touch with reality, and they are tone deaf with people around them who aren’t ready to tell them that they are sounding off-key,” he said.
In Trump’s case, Hooper said, “Maybe he’s in a position that all of his advisers are loathe to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.”