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“Alternative Facts” in a Racialized Society

Jarvis Williams

President Trump suggests his presidential inauguration was attended by and watched by more people than President Obama’s. President Trump’s administration publicly agreed with his assessment. When critics immediately began to push back against the administration on various media outlets, the Trump administration forcefully responded.

One of President Trump’s advisors stated the President’s Press Secretary provided “Alternative Facts” to the information that challenges the assessment of President Trump and his administration.

The phrase “Alternative Facts” caused much controversy, because critics say that these “Alternative Facts” are not facts at all. Others are concerned that these “Alternative Facts” raise a greater concern about the Trump administration. Regardless of evidence, will President Trump and his administration accept only the information that supports their assessments or conclusions?

Perhaps when Ms. Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “Alternative Facts,” she intended to communicate that people can look at the same information/evidence, but might come to very different conclusions. Maybe she meant that historical questions are questions of probability, and not questions of absolute certainty.

I don’t know what Ms. Conway meant by “Alternative Facts.” Nevertheless, regardless of Ms. Conway’s intent, a point with which every American must reckon is facts don’t speak by or for themselves, just as policies and laws don’t speak by or for themselves.

Information must be interpreted and applied, just as policies and laws must be interpreted and applied. As soon as a person begins to explain what they see when looking at a piece of information, such an explanation is an interpretation, even if the information is reasonably demonstrated as factual. To call something a fact is even an act of interpretation itself, because all propositional truth claims are based on one’s interpretation of a piece of evidence.

As “Alternative Facts” relate to racialized speech, there are several dangers to letting one person or group of people with shared ideological perspectives interpret and determine what is legally, economically, or politically factual or not for marginalized people living in a racialized society. I will highlight one.

Racial Postures Can Blind Us to Racialized Facts
Privilege comes in many different sizes, shapes, and colors. But in the US, whiteness has historically been privileged in that it has been prioritized. This point seems reasonable given the history of discrimination against non-white people in this country.

The enslavement of black people, the lynching of black people, the creation of Jim Crow laws to oppress, and the mass incarceration of black people support that whiteness has historically been privileged, prioritized, and legally protected in this country.

This privilege gives a social head start to white people ahead of African-Americans and other racially marginalized communities. This doesn’t mean that every social problem facing black people today is because of racism; this means historically African-Americans were socially behind whites in this country, because of racism, which privileged whiteness. The residue of historic racialization still remains, as many privileged white and privileged non-white people deny that we still live in a racialized society (i.e. a society that attributes racial qualities to a group of people for the purpose of marginalization and racial domination).

If those with privilege in government can socially mobilize themselves in ways that enable them to avoid or blind themselves to racialization and the policies and laws emerging from racialization, they might be tempted to ignore or simply find evidence that will reinforce their biases against certain races.

We see this being played out already when people advocate for colorblindness to perpetuate racial injustice, point out that black on black crime is high to refute arguments on the presence of systemic injustice, and when folks assert all lives matter in response to the phrase black lives matter to challenge whether people have reason to believe systemic racism still exists in certain parts of our country.

“Alternative Facts” is not the phrase I would use to offer a counter argument against an opposing interpretation of shared evidence. Still, we must remember facts must be interpreted. All facts are interpreted facts. Sometimes we present evidence as factual, but it is later proven to be fiction. Any piece of evidence may be proven to be factual by one interpreter apart from another interpreter’s personal experience of that evidence, but no interpreter will ever personally know any piece of evidence as a fact unless one personally encounters and interprets it as a fact.

Thus, it’s crucial for our president and other government officials to work together with “all” in government to solve real problems for “all” people in a racialized society. But if “all” people are not included at the table or in the discussions, there will inevitably be a one-sided and racially biased interpretation of what is factual, because of racialization and the policies and laws created by it. There may likewise be a racialized bias of the application of those policies and laws to both privileged and marginalized people.

If President Trump and his team provide “Alternative Facts” to every piece of evidence that challenges his personal beliefs and preconceived notions about racialization, just as they did for the inauguration, then race relations in this racialized country will fail to improve during the Trump Presidency. And this failure will likely show up in his policies and how his policies are applied to racialized communities.

My assertion is reasonable since many of the people offering “Alternative Facts” in his administration are not interpreting these facts from the posture of the marginalized minority or alongside of the marginalized minority, but from the posture of the privileged majority.

3 thoughts on ““Alternative Facts” in a Racialized Society

  1. Edward L. Bryant

    Dr. Williams,

    I’m a little older than you and old enough to remember when President Reagan used the “trust, but verify” during the later years of the Cold War. When I consider this new administration, one of the things I find most troubling is their stance of truth. I’ve come to refer to this as our nation’s Nietzsche moment – we’ve elected a “strong man” who makes his own truth. I’ve also been saying “what is truth” in conversations – I guess to remind myself that Jesus IS the way, THE TRUTH, and the life.

    I am very concerned with my Evangelical brothers and sisters who encourage me to “give him a chance,” when this President has done nothing within his first week to prove he is worthy of being given a chance. Also, I cannot and will not merely hand over my responsibilities as a citizen over to this, or any other government administration.

    As my good friend Vince Bacote recently reminded a group at Wheaton – the church has defaulted to a deficient approach to cultural engagement, feeling as though the mere act of voting is enough. I think it is obvious that our nation has entered into a new space, an “undiscovered country” wherein “truth is stranger than it used to be.” this means we will need to, as John Kerry has said, “verify and verify.”

    My hope is that that Church will recapture its true prophetic essence and become people who proclaim “true truth.” Obviously, I’m among those who would argue that this Administration’s “out of the gate” actions are very problematic and signal greater issues of concern.

    Most importantly. my hope is that the Church will reclaim, not a triumphalist and truncated Gospel of individualistic salvation, protectionism, and closed handedness, but rather an engaging and prophetic Gospel-Centered witness that is not afraid to speak truth (in love) and to be faithfully present in our moment.

  2. Mezzula5

    Gospel singer Vicki Yohi (privileged majority) presents an interesting case study of alternative facts. Her black fans offer the marginalized minority perspective as they critique her instagram post in this short video:


  3. DCal3000

    First, kudos for criticizing the Trump administration’s use of the term “alternative facts.” As with previous administrations, one of the best ways to improve government is to take officials to task when they are wrong.

    That said, I am slightly alarmed that this article did not do more to discuss objective truth. I recognize that, as Christians, we must acknowledge that sin inevitably mars our interpretation of facts, but we must also acknowledge that objective facts do exist in God’s created order. We do not simply live in a reality defined by competing racial narratives. We live in a reality ultimately defined by God Himself. I did not see that worldview reflected here.

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