“White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t.”
-James Baldwin, on the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham
Tens of millions of Americans woke up on the morning of November 9th in a nation they no longer recognized. All their lives they had taken for granted the security, freedom and virtue of their country. Their pride in being American was largely carefree and unconsidered, a birthright. They were oblivious to politics until one day, politics reached out and touched them.
An op-ed in the Washington Post in February captured this mindset. Submitted by an “ordinary American” who had taken little interest in politics, it is a capsule of the outrage of the broken-bubble class. The author explained that she never voted in midterm elections, couldn’t name more than one or two of Obama’s cabinet secretaries, and didn’t know anyone who was meaningfully engaged in the system. Her rationale is the biography of a generation:
I simply didn’t think I needed to know. Why? Because I always had a sense that things would be okay, regardless of who was in charge; if Mitt Romney had won instead of Obama, things would have been fine.
This was the first time I felt like things could not be okay. And I have found a political voice I didn’t know that I had — or that I even wanted to have.
Millions of Americans are shocked to see the darkest impulses of their country on display. But not everyone is surprised. Not everyone has enjoyed the privilege of oblivion. Some recognize in Trump a chance to wake America’s most powerful voters from their comfortable complacency. Out of this maelstrom, they see a twinkling of hope for real, meaningful social justice.
I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to visit with a friend during her layover at O’Hare. The atmosphere around the airport was tense. Protests over Trump’s fumbled Muslim ban were just coming to an end. An unusually robust police presence was augmented by heavily-armed federal agents roaming the terminal.
As a black Republican woman who had been active in politics, she had seen her share of bigotry and discrimination in and out of politics. Given the circumstances, her mood was strangely serene. While I vented my worries, she nodded politely, an odd smile on her face. Finally she interrupted me, “I need to tell you something you’re not going to like and may not understand.”
After voting twice for Obama she had voted for Donald Trump. She didn’t do it because she liked him. She didn’t do it because she thought he would be a great President. Donald Trump offered the only available means to break the complacency that was strangling our politics on both sides.
She explained, “I am truly sorry that all you can see is fear for you and your family but too many people are too comfortable in a system that is destroying a lot of lives. This was our only chance to create a real opportunity for change.”
In a pre-Trump world, white voters in both parties that considered themselves friendly to African-American causes were still oblivious to the realities they faced. That oblivion had consequences. In a line that still leaves a lump in my stomach she explained the core rationale behind her vote for Trump, “Guess what. You’re all black now.” Conditions under Trump are already wearing down that distance, eroding the sense of numbed safety that blunted white political activism.
Life under a black President was empowering at a psychological level, but in some ways conditions on the ground may have grown worse. White complacency settled like a fog while a backlash from racists gained steam. White people remained comfortably disengaged from politics while black families tried to train their children to survive interactions with police. The black community’s strongest apparent allies were largely disconnected from their concerns.
While I sputtered through a litany of consequences for the black community, she just smiled and nodded. As I listened to my words hanging in the air I could already hear how ridiculous I sounded. Yes, a Justice Department led by an Alabama Senator would be bad for African-Americans, but would life on the ground really be much worse than before?
Places like Baltimore and Hartford and Newark and Chicago had been governed by Democrats for almost a century. How many black teenagers died at the hands of police officers for no reason during the Obama years? What has a Democratic mayor and Democratic city council and a black Democratic President done to clean up the police force in Chicago?
Conditions in the still-segregated black neighborhoods and still-segregated black schools of Newark, Trenton and Milwaukee were bad under Bush. They were bad under Obama. They will be bad under Trump. At least under Trump, white people may finally start to share the pain. And by sharing the pain, maybe they will understand what African-Americans have been trying to tell them about America for generations.
I also got a chance to talk with James Taylor. Almost fifty years ago he founded the City News, the largest black-owned publication in Kankakee, Illinois. Taylor has been an active Republican politics since he was 18, but explained that “there’s no difference between the parties once you get above a certain level.” After endorsing Obama in previous elections, Taylor earned heavy criticism for an editorial supporting Trump.
Taylor knew Obama from his Chicago days and expressed an often-heard frustration, “The façade is disappearing. Obama didn’t help us any more than anyone else.” He saw his vote for Trump as a chance to “free people from the idea that there is a savior out there in either party.”
White liberals have been saying all the right things about race for generations while the bodies pile up on Chicago’s Southside. White liberals stopped using the n-word, started watching movies with black actors, learned to appreciate the literature of Maya Angelou and political writings of Malcolm X. Meanwhile in cities that Democrats govern from top to bottom, schools are a disaster. Policing is lethally reckless. Opportunities for young minorities to move up and improve their lives are stunted. Black votes for Democrats have consistently handed power to a white left typified by Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. Lots of happy talk. No representation.
For fifty years black voters have given 90% support to one political party. They have been rewarded by watching that party throw its power behind institutions like police and teacher unions with interests diametrically at odds to their own. Black voters ask for school choice, opportunities for minority-owned businesses, desegregation of trade unions, greater access to college, and fair treatment by police. Black voters express concerns about the economic impact of illegal immigration and find those concerns ignored. Black voters express ambivalence about Democratic enthusiasm for culture war issues and are disregarded.
Many black voters, especially in areas dominated by the Democratic Party, feel trapped. On one side they face an openly hostile GOP. On the other they face a Democratic Party that is happy to take their votes while offering nothing in return but patronizing rhetoric and welfare. Something has to break.
Taylor became emotional in describing the film, Hidden Figures. He spoke of his childhood love of all things related to space and technology. As a young man he received a clear message that these realms were not available to people like him. “Do you know what it would have meant to us to know that this happened? All we saw in those control rooms on TV were white faces. They told us we weren’t smart enough to do that.” Seizing opportunities opened by political liberalization requires more than sympathetic rhetoric. Eight years with a black President seemed to accomplish very little on the ground.
For Taylor, a choice between one party offering friendly, permanent patronage and another one offering little more than disdain is no choice at all. He explained that “I’m not angry anymore.” In hope of obtaining some authentic empowerment, he is willing to set the present system on fire. He is not alone.
Very few African-Americans voted for Donald Trump. However, almost 2 million black voters who supported Obama in 2012 sat out this election. Their non-vote in places like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee tipped this race toward an American electoral apocalypse. Atlas Shrugged. Minority voters will not continue to carry the burden of keeping this country sane so that affluent white suburbanites can continue their blissful complacency. As Taylor explained of his vote for Trump, “This system will clean itself, or something else will happen.”
For at least a few black voters, a uniquely terrible candidate offered an opportunity to vote for the wrecking ball. White voters are now stripped of our careless ease. Our thoughtless optimism and unconsidered national pride is shredded. America’s complacent white majority will now find the empathy and courage it takes to build a more just system, or Taylor’s “something else” will happen.
In a democracy, you always have the government that you deserve.