I grew up in northern Virginia, in Fairfax County, a versace purse hugging the hip of Washington D.C. Had I known the term, I would have said with absolute conviction that we were post-racial. The area was more or less fully integrated—people from all over the world happily mingled in every imaginable public venue, except for Jimmy Buffett shows and other precious cultural stuff. No one said “n*gger.”
In Fairfax County in the 1960s, my grandmother organized a group of local mothers to open up their backyard pools so black children, not allowed into public pools, could learn to swim. She drove the kids around and decades later more than a dozen of them showed up unbidden at her memorial service. A few spoke. No one in the room knew any of them.
I went to college in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in quaint Harrisonburg, VA, a notorious meth hub but otherwise a drowsy mountain town split in two by Interstate 81. I lived in a suite with a gay black man from Delaware named Omar. He had to strip his Freddie Prinze, Jr., posters whenever his roommate’s parents came to visit. He once joked to me you can hide gay in the south, but you can’t hide black.
In my early twenties, I moved to New York City. I lived with trust-fund artists in palatial new and illegal warehouse lofts in a largely Hispanic “working class” neighborhood in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, I entered and exited entire nations walking block to block. I was lonely.
When I was 27, I first faced it. I studied and taught college English in central Georgia: Milledgeville, a spiky red place and the state capital through the end of the Civil War. I saw white men call black men “n*ggers” to their faces. I constantly saw black people turned away from restaurants and bars because they were black people. On more than one occasion, cops pulled over my friends on jogs and advised they run in another part of town.
For some reason, none of that seemed to really matter. I mean, it was clearly quite deeply appalling and frightening, but it was also predictable and dumb. There were confederate flags all over the place—faded and tattered and dangling flaccidly on ad hoc posts in depressing front yards; bright and heavy and thumping in the wind on the backs of pickup trucks that sounded like tommy guns; plastered in the window of a room I used to rent. And the tattoos. Oh, the tattoos. All of it cliched and so B-movie cartoony that it didn’t seem real. It was easy, as a white man, to see it that way. To laugh at the cartoon rednecks. Part of me thought, Come on, guys, you can do better than that.
It’s much harder to handle hate when you don’t see it coming. And that’s what has happened this election cycle.
My college students were mostly well-off white kids from suburban Atlanta. Less than 100 black men in the whole school, and one year the demographics available online put the number of Hispanic men at less than 30. Nearly all my students were born in Georgia, and nearly none had an accent. Also—and maybe not coincidentally—none thought racism was a problem. For evidence, they cited the fact they themselves weren’t racists, plus Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement, and MLK was actually from Atlanta, so there you have it.
One night I saw a student lean out of one of those tommy-gun trucks and yell, “Go home, n*gger!” to a black guy with Tourette’s walking past me and carrying a styrofoam clamshell from the Golden Pantry, containing possibly the best damn tater logs and spicy chicken biscuits this side of eternity. As the truck gunned away from us,, I grasped for something to say to the man and landed on this: “Man, I love the Golden Pantry.”
That is what I said.
He didn’t say anything back. I honestly don’t know if he had heard what either white guy said to him.
This September, Mr. Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America, said, during a presidential debate, “African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell. You walk down the street and you get shot.”
It reminded me of walking down that street in Milledgeville. Shot with what, exactly, Mr. Trump?
Last night a black church in Greenville, Mississippi, was burned and spray-painted “Vote Trump.”
This year (which I feel compelled to remind you is 2016), Mr. Donald J. Trump—THE REPUBLICAN NOMINEE FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA—has been publicly endorsed by:
—The KKK’s official newspaper, The Crusader
—The head of the American Nazi Party
—Four former Klansmen
—Four militiamen involved with the armed Malheur refuge standoff
—And apparently over a dozen others linked to groups described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups.
This past Monday, Trump called one of own black supporters a thug before having him ejected from a rally: “We have a protester! By the way, were you paid $1,500 to be a thug?”
Trump has also repeatedly likened our inner cities to war zones “worse than Afghanistan.” He promises he’ll “be able to make sure that when you walk down the street in your inner city, or wherever you are, you’re not gonna be shot. Your child isn’t gonna be shot.” He has called these blighted neighborhoods, stumbling over the word, “g-ghettoes.”
In your inner city, or wherever you are.
Here is how mistaken Mr. Trump’s vision of life in America is. From the New York Times:
In reality, the central neighborhoods of many major American cities are thriving… home values have risen faster in the heart of big cities than anywhere else in the country over the last 25 years… Today, more of metropolitan America’s poor live in the suburbs than in cities. Chicago, frequently mentioned by Mr. Trump, lost 17 percent of its black population between 2000 and 2010 alone. Nationwide, a majority of blacks in large metropolitan areas now live in the suburbs, a huge demographic shift, particularly among the black middle class. And as they’ve moved out, in some gentrifying neighborhoods, the rich have been moving in.
And I have no room here to even begin on what he has to say about “the Hispanics.”
Mr. Trump might truly not see race. Not as it is. But that is not a virtue. That is the problem.
Back in my post-racial northern Virginia childhood, I had a good friend who was black who lived in a house about three times the size of mine. He both looked and sounded like Kermit the frog, and he loved soccer, Star Wars, and Sega Genesis. One summer afternoon, while we chalked out a three-point line and key on his driveway ahead of a game of 21, he told me, seemingly out of nowhere, he’d been called n*gger and was sometimes followed in stores.
“Whoa,” I said. “That still goes on?” He said it did, and we went back to chalking the driveway and I didn’t think of it for years.
The ghosts of the Civil War aren’t ghosts, and they aren’t from the Civil War. They are human beings with beliefs and desires and choices and they live among and inside all of us. Unfortunately, the truth is we can’t choose our problems. To be post-racial is to be post-American, even post-human.
We need to pay attention to what just happened in Greenville. To David Duke. To the three Kansas militiamen the FBI arrested earlier this month plotting to bomb a Somali mosque and then go around gunning down Muslims and people who supported immigrants. To the violent Americans we see Donald Trump activating wherever he holds an event. Above all that, we need to pay attention to ourselves.
The President of the United States of America cannot be admired by—let alone give hope to —the most violent, hateful, despicable and dangerous people among us.
And if Trump wins? We shouldn’t childishly abandon the country (looking at you, Bryan Cranston) but stay and beat back with all our hearts what we believe is right and good and American. After all, America, for its innumerable flaws and literally monumental injustices, is great today precisely because of them: Our greatest failings represent the hope of their own undoing.
In other words, not only can we see what is wrong here, we are fortunate enough to be free to try to do something about it. We are fortunate enough to be free to do something about Donald J. Trump, even if he wins. (No, not talking specifically to those Trump called “you Second Amendment people”—of which I am one.)
I mean, the entire premise of America is that America sucks. If America didn’t suck so bad, we wouldn’t need America in the first place. We’ve been at this thing for a long time, folks, and we can continue to make good changes to an imperfect system as long as we have enough heart and hold out enough hope.
I now live in Austin, TX. About a week after the police shootings in Dallas this summer, I joined hundreds of people of every possible human color at a Black Lives Matter event in front of the Texas State Capitol. Capitol Police armed with ARs watched us from the Capitol building steps. A helicopter circled the whole time.
The last speaker, a charming and loud and heavily dreadlocked young man, worked himself into a sort of ecstasy of joy, clutching his shirt over his heart while looking random people wildly in the eye and spouting about how much he loved them. “Sister, I love you!” And she’d shout back, “I love you!” He went through the crowd like that for a few minutes, then without warning turned us all around to face the two policemen armed with ARs on the capitol steps.
He implored the officers, practically spitting into the microphone, that love was the only way. For all of us. He told them again and again—a week after someone who shared his skin color slaughtered five of their brothers, and a week after some of their brothers slaughtered men who shared his skin color—again and again he told them how much he loved them, how much we all loved them, louder and louder, to the point where his voice broke and I believe he was crying—“We love you, officers! We love you!” The crowd joined in. The cops, though, had to hold form up there. They stood stone-faced on the Capitol steps, thinking their sunglassed thoughts. The crowd kept screaming, though, almost hysterically.
It went on too long. “Come on, guys,” I thought, meaning the cops. “Don’t just stand there.” And soon enough, one of them took a hand off his AR and gave us a solid thumbs-up. That was all it took. It set us on fire. People cried. I did.
So for all of you out there today who, for whatever reason, hold little hope for the stubborn and flawed and all too often corrupt process that is America, it doesn’t take much. Hold your little hope, speak your little heart, read a bit, don’t vote the KKK ticket, and don’t go around telling people you’re going to move to Canada. We can’t choose our problems, but we can choose to solve them.