Anne H. Charity Hudley & Jamaal Muwwakkil
The Los Angeles Times letters version of this essay appears here: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-11-21/letters-page-trump-voters-aftermath
We were dismayed to read the rationale for why the LA Times turned over their letters page to Trump Readers on November 14. Letters editor Paul Thornton states, “Liberal politics dominate Los Angeles, but this isn’t to say we can write off contrarian views.” He goes on to say that “Trumpism is not going away on January 20. For the foreseeable future, in a Biden presidency and beyond, his supporters and the rest of us will share a country; in Los Angeles, they will share a newspaper and, yes, the same letters page.”
As sociolinguists, we study how language is used both in the context that it is intended—in this case, to spark understanding and debate. We also study how that same language may be used outside of that intended context—in this case, to radicalize people and weaponize sentiments against others. So, key questions we had when we read the letters with Thornton’s framing were: What was the objective of publishing these letters? Who is the intended readership, and what did they uncover? What was viewed by the editorial board as an act of journalistic balance was considered by many others—particularly scholars and journalists of color—as journalistic appeasement. Thornton’s argument for our attention to the letters is that there are over 73 million Trump supporters. Yet, there are many times in history when the majority was not deserving of a full audience. The action reminded us of the history of Southern Newspaper Editorial Boards, who gave voice to the Confederacy, segregation, and violence in search of “understanding.”
The letters were purported to convey the ideas and feelings of Trump supporters. But the editorial curation was insidiously dangerous. By presenting mild versions of the violent, oppressive messaging that the Trump campaign has used to marshal and radicalize new voters, the LA Times has given voice to a litany of strawman arguments. And this is how White supremacy and other forms of government-led hatred function—by political entities presenting hatred as a set of reasonable policies rather than engaging with the dangerous resultative practices. Letter after letter reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of oppression and how it works in the United States.
Furthermore, LA Times readers have been reading and listening to Trump supporters’ underdeveloped arguments for years. Many of us have had to be aware of their messaging for our own safety and survival. Trump and his followers have argued that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, that Mexicans are criminals, and that they are, in fact, the oppressed and downtrodden. The letters that were published did not center those arguments or why they made them. Instead, they centered on a more moderate take on these same issues.
There are Trump voters who are conspiracy enthusiasts, and there are also Trump supporters who fully comprehend the problematic messaging. Yet, they choose to ignore the violent rhetoric because they got what they wanted out of Trump and Trumpism. Did Hilary Clinton win the popular vote in 2016 by 3 million, or did 3 million people vote illegally in California? Does it matter? Similarly, does it matter that hate crimes against Asian Americans spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic? Does it matter that Trump publicly disrespects women for being women if my 401k retirement fund is earning money? Others have decided that if Trump says he’s Christian and limits abortion, that’s enough for them to overlook issues of “tone.” Thornton’s framing of the letters elevates the opinions of those who have conceded to the hate as a byproduct of what they gain. In doing so, the LA Times falls into the trap of further legitimizing the intentional lies in the name of trying to seek the truth.
We are in an unprecedented time in this country. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to over 200,00 deaths so far. The Trump administration is still acting as if it won the election. And our newspapers, now more than ever, bear responsibility for what they print. To fully understand how Trump’s rise to power has happened, the LA Times should interview Trump supporters to bear witness to their actions. But turning over the op-ed page to them for their unadulterated side of the story legitimizes their narration and allows for the narratives to be taken out of context. And at that point, the LA Times becomes a platform for propaganda. There are many letters the editorial board would never print, and there are constituencies that the editorial board would never turn over the letters page to, particularly those who directly condone violence and egregious forms of hate.
So, where do we go from here? If the editorial board intended to seek greater understanding reflective of the country, of California, and Los Angeles, then the board should start there—by looking at its own makeup. Los Angeles is almost 50% Latinx, yet there is only one Latinx member of the Opinions editorial board. The overrepresentation of White men on the board influences the narrative on the Op-ed pages and was likely a factor in the room where the decision to publish these particular letters was made. And that’s the real problem. No one spoke up to say—You know what? Maybe this isn’t the best way to address our current moment or fully engage with the full range of issues.
The lack of intersectional representation on the editorial board also influences who else has a voice on the letters and opinions pages. Many on social media and elsewhere have been pointing out the marked lack of representation of the opinions and perspectives of people who are houseless, people who are undocumented, people who are incarcerated, and many other people who are vital to the full identity and experiences of the people of Los Angeles and California.
In the future, the editorial board should work to help people understand that a purpose and function of journalism, according to the American Press Institute, is to “improve the quality of debate.” They can further help people understand the purpose and function of an individual opinion, how to verify a fact, and how we can help each other sort perceived realities from fiction.
For example, if the goal of the letters was to truly understand Trump voters viewpoints, then we don’t just want to know about a Black man who made money during the Trump administration; we want to know how he as a Black man can ignore the racist messages that allowed Trump’s base to grow, and the plight of Black people who have suffered from COVID-19 or at the hands of the police under the Trump administration. We don’t just want to know that a Trump supporter thinks voters understood the intentions of Prop 16; we want to hear more about how they think that the government and we as people should address the historical and present realities of state-sanctioned discrimination that has led to such drastic economic, social, and educational inequality in California?
The LA Times editorial board should dedicate themselves to further representing and sharing the full and rich range of the unique opinions of Californians and, most importantly, why they hold them. And from there, comprehensive dialogue might begin.
Anne Charity Hudley is the North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African America at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research and publications address the relationship between English language variation and K-16 educational practices and policies. She is the co-author of three books: The Indispensable Guide to Undergraduate Research: Success in and Beyond College, Understanding English Language Variation in US Schools, and We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom
Jamaal Muwwakkil is the UC Student Regent and a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research explores the relationship between language, institutions, and power, with a focus on higher education in California. His master’s thesis was an ethnography of conservative student groups on a liberal university campus.