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Commentary: Racism is a real thing, so accuse wisely -- especially with Trump

President Donald Trump holds an African American History Month listening session attended by Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Manigault (L) and other officials in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump gets accused of being a racist. Often. The problem is, when it happens too often, it can become meaningless.

Take a recent tweet from the president, aimed at CNN's Don Lemon and NBA superstar LeBron James, in which Trump insults both of them after Lemon interviewed James about his new school.

"LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon," Trump wrote. "He made LeBron look smart, which isn't easy to do. I like Mike!"

Numerous media outlets framed this tweet as a racist attack on two black men, an accusation that is, at best, subjective and unprovable, and at worst, recklessly inaccurate.

For another example, look to the more recent conflict between Trump and former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who he called a "dog" and a "crazed, crying lowlife" after she released a tell-all book about her time in the administration and released a recording of a private call between the two of them.

This is certainly an unusually crude and unbecoming way for the President of the United States to speak, and Trump's assessment of his former employee reflects poorly on his judgment in hiring her in the first place. But the tweet was also called both racist and sexist.

The common thread between these two recent instances, and some others that have come before it, is that Trump's insults are being called racist, not because they contain race-related content, but simply because they are directed at nonwhite people.

Some will point to Trump's alleged pattern of insulting people of color. However, such a pattern really only exists if one chooses to filter out a long (and growing) record of Trump insults that target people of various racial and political backgrounds, seemingly indiscriminately.

Yes, Trump has spoken ill of many people of color. But Trump, unfortunately, speaks ill of many people, period. That's how he operates.

It's one thing to question the racial motivations behind Trump saying some white supremacists are "fine people." Or to point out the clear racial undertones to Trump saying NFL players should lose their jobs for protesting against unjust minority abuse and killing at the hands of law enforcement, although even in those cases accusations of racism are relatively easy for him to evade.

But it becomes counterproductive to minority causes when every comment directed at a person of color becomes defined by the race of the comment's target, rather than by the substance (or lack of substance) of the comment itself.

It becomes a self-fueling cycle: Trump's comments are racist because he is a racist, and he is a racist because he makes racist comments. That cycle does not leave room for a consideration of whether race is a useful, or even reasonable, factor to address with a particular comment.

The subsection of the population that is inclined to deny any accusation of racism, even in obvious circumstances, won't be persuaded by a wave of flimsy accusations. On the contrary, those people will become further entrenched in their view that most, if not all racism is made up by people who want to see it everywhere.

That becomes a real problem when the issue at stake is greater the dignity of a scorned reality TV star or the feelings of a politically-minded NBA player who takes his fair share of shots at the president.

The existence of racism needs to be believed when the topic is gerrymandering to diminish the influence of minority voters, or racially imbalanced policing and incarceration, or housing discrimination.

Let's not spend our political capital on tweets about Don Lemon and LeBron James. We have bigger issues to handle, and when it's time to handle them, it's crucial that the nation hasn't already tuned us out because we cried "wolf" one too many times.

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