How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist - Paul Ryan Edition

Donald Trump has been making racist statements for decades, but only in recent weeks has he become the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican party. Now when Trump makes racist statements, every Republican politican in the country gets asked for their own thoughts about it. Fortunately for them, Speaker Paul Ryan stepped up this week and gave an example worth emulating for how to handle what could be a regular occurence in the coming months.

1 - At a Tuesday press conference Ryan said plainly and unequivocally, "I am not going to defend these kind of comments because they are indefensible. Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment."

2 - When asked on Fox News if he was calling Trump a racist, Ryan replied, "No, I’m not. I’m saying his comment was. I don’t know what’s in his heart. I can’t speak to that whatsoever. What I’m saying is to suggest that a person’s race disqualifies them to do their job is textbook. That’s what I’m saying."

3 - Then Ryan went on Good Morning America Friday morning and repeated his position:

"I have [spoken to Trump] and explained exactly what I thought about that comment. I said it publicly and I said it privately.

"This is something that needs to be condemned. That comment is beyond the pale. That's not political correctness -- suggesting someone can't do their job because of their race or ethnicity, that's not a politically incorrect thing to do. That's just a wrong thing to say, and I hope he gets that."

Notice how Speaker Ryan sticks to what New York cultural commentator Jay Smooth labeled the "What They Did" conversation in his classic 2008 video, "How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist" and skillfully avoids getting drawn into the "What The Are" conversation:

"The 'What They Did' conversation focuses strictly on the person's words and actions, and explaining why what they did and what they said was unacceptable. This is also known as the 'That Thing You Said Was Racist' conversation, and that's the conversation you want to have."

There's another conversation to be had about whether, why and how to support a candidate who keeps doing racist things.  (See Megan McArdle and Jonathan Chait's recent columns for two thoughtful and differing viewpoints on that topic.) But for now let's give credit to Speaker Ryan where credit is due, for his forthright and repeated denunciation of Trump's racist behavior.

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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