BRATTLEBORO—Issues like climate change, the economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic unite us. They are not about politics.
Fires in the west and floods in the south do not have political parties. The pandemic is an equal opportunity employer. People are dying who should not have to die. That is real.
These problems are essential and even existential, but for me they do not run as deep as the way in which racism shapes and warps our politics.
In the past year, a reckoning on race has swept through the nation on the wings of Black Lives Matter and the inutterably tragic videos, captured online, of the violence directed at the bodies and psyches of people who have brown skin.
It should not have taken the excruciating eight-minute video of George Floyd’s murder to finally wake white people up, but it did.
There is no question that race was a central element in the way this last election turned out. But race has been central to American politics for as long as I have been alive.
When Lyndon Johnson forced civil rights legislation through in 1964 and 1965 — ending the Jim Crow era in the South, at least on paper — he also lost the Democratic Party’s complex alliance with southern Democrats.
The Republican Party has used race to divide the United States since Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, and the dog whistles that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush called out in the 1980s with talk of “welfare queens” and political ads featuring Willie Horton, a convicted criminal whose crimes had nothing to do with anything in the 1988 presidential election besides putting fear of Black males into the minds of white people.
Trump turned those dog whistles into a bugle, and he has blown hard on the clarion call of racism since well before he announced he was running for office, a speech in which he stigmatized Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” One of Trump’s first acts in office was to try to ban people from several Islamic nations from coming to the United States.
Of the issues that face the U.S., the intrinsic racism woven into our soul as a nation is the most intractable. The other issues are technical problems, with technical solutions.
Achieving true racial equity and a world in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin is a more difficult problem to solve.
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The violence has always been there. People stolen from Africa were chattel slaves. To read the history is like taking the deepest dive into sorrow that any person can imagine, except perhaps to read the history of the genocide on Indigenous people. The rape and violence and murder committed on the brown body is written into our constitution.
Still, when Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008, there was a sense that the United States had finally achieved a new dawn in its long struggle to expunge the sin of slavery. We relaxed.
We should not have.
If Donald Trump’s presidency has taught us nothing else, it showed us that racism is alive and well in the United States, and that the fear, pain, and anger every person with black or brown skin was born to suffer in this nation is real.
That Joe Biden won the election and that Kamala Harris will be the first woman to hold executive office, the first woman with brown skin, the first woman with ancestry that goes back to the time of slavery in Jamaica can only make us breathe a slow sigh of relief.
Biden and Harris won the presidency by more than four million votes across the nation, and the pathetic way in which Trump is contesting the vote cannot obscure the Electoral College outcome, which might not be a mandate but certainly is decisive.
At the same time, more than 70 million Americans voted for Trump, a man who placed vocal racism at the heart of his populist appeal.
Vermont might be the most progressive state in the nation, but even here more than 30 percent of voters pulled the lever for Trump.
What does that mean?
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Last week, my friend Alan Blackwell, who ran Arkham, the most intersectional establishment in Brattleboro, before it succumbed to the economics of the shutdown and COVID-19 regulations, made this post on Facebook:
“I know many of you on here who openly support Trump. I don’t judge you based on your choices and beliefs. Supporting Trump does not mean that you’re racist, but it does mean that his blatant racism is not a dealbreaker for you. I’m not unfriending you, but I can never forget it. It brings me sadness.
“Your Black friend Alan.”
His dignity and sorrow started me talking to a lot of folks who are wiser than I am about race.
Not everyone had the same measured tone.
“And so, this week, my duty as an American is to reach out to Trump supporters,” wrote Damon Young in The Root, an African-American centered website, affecting a tone of reconciliation and civility before swerving into 300 words of raw, all-caps-shouting fury:
Anger, pain, sorrow, and fear are a legacy of slavery that inhabits the bones and blood of every person with black or brown skin, and the one thing that anyone who cares about these things knows is that the work is just beginning now. We have not really accomplished anything yet. and the meaning and consequences of this election — a wake-up call in the same way that the election of Obama in 2008 put us all to sleep.
“There has never been an anti-racist majority in American history,” Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic before the election. “There may be one today.”
I hope that is true, and to check my hope I talked last week to some of the folks who work within the struggle against American racism every day. I asked them what they thought the outcome of this election meant for the fight against racism in the United States.
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“Trump allowed closet racists to get out of the closet,” said Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, based in Brattleboro.
“There are a lot of folks here who play into grievance politics in a way that makes it difficult to have a conversation about race,” said Reed, pointing out the false grievance “that somehow they are going to lose some status because Black and brown folks have become increasingly visible.”
Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP, talked about how the electoral victory of Biden and Harris changes the nature of the work to battle racism in structural and policy terms.
“Under the Trump presidency, everything felt like our reaction to a trauma, because we were trying to create protections that should just be there and that had to be bolstered,” he said.
“Now, people, whether they be in the justice community or other communities, have time to look at policies and ideas that came about when we thought we were going to get a second Trump presidency, and see how we can flesh them out and be more flexible about it,” Gillom continued.
“It’s not going to be a perfect day, and we don’t expect that either,” he added. “But yeah, there’s a big sigh of relief. We now see the importance of structural protection for people of color and other marginalized people.”
The Trump presidency exposed “a strong vein of hate that is willing to rise up again and to strike and lash out at marginalized peoples, and we also realized just how vulnerable a lot of our populations are,” said Gillom. “It’s important that we focus on the 70 percent [of people who voted for Biden in Vermont] and that chose to move in the other direction.”
“There are lots of people who are wanting for the collective to thrive, and I think that is reflected in Vermont,” he added. “I am hoping, though, that the 70 percent wakes up a little bit and sees that there needs to be a lot more leadership than just people of color.”
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Both Reed and Marc Thurman, the secretary of education for the Windham County NAACP and the director/coordinator of the Centers for Diversity and Inclusion at Landmark College, talked about the central role that education must take if we are to achieve progress in the fight against the racism of ignorance and malice.
“Everything comes back to how we are educated, the actual system, Blacks and whites, people with brown skin, and our educational system is so misguided in how it teaches history,” said Reed.
He pointed out that a true curriculum would start with the genocide of Indigenous peoples and all the broken treaties, and cover the reality of slavery and the continued oppression of people with black or brown skin under Jim Crow and into the present era.
That’s another article.
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With everyone I interviewed we explored the question of what it means that Kamala Harris is now the vice president-elect. Harris comes from the highest Brahmin class in South Asia, and her father was a Jamaican-American.
Reed said that the main point is that she will be perceived as a Black person, and that her elevation to the highest office in the land should register that.
“I was thinking today that Kamala went to Howard University, which was really a conscious choice,” said the poet and journalist Andy McCord, who founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access for Black children to New York City’s elite public schools, the most segregated in the nation.
“It’s not like she said, ‘I’ll go to Howard and that’s the way I’m going to become vice president,’” said McCord. “She became vice president, and that’s never been done before.”
That’s another article.
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No one with white skin in the United States can know the pain, fear, sorrow, and anger that people with black or brown skin face every day. We just can’t. We have no lived experience that can teach us what it feels like to be a Black person in America.
Alan Blackwell went to the same kind of private school in New York City that I did. He is an artist and entrepreneur, and I am a poet and journalist. So there are differences between us, the least of which is the color of our skin.
At the end of our conversation, I asked him a hard question: “What does it feel like to be Black in America?”
“It’s just like I have never known any other way; this has been my experience for my entire life, and I don’t know in life what it would be like to not have the lived experience of having stereotypes not thrust on me every day,” he replied.
“I don’t know what life would be like as some random cisgender white male in our society, who is able to pass from group to group and situation to situation without having to even consider the worries and considerations that I have,” he said.
“I do know that there has been this massive push in this country for white folks not to stay silent among their peers,” Blackwell said. “And those are moments when it can be hardest to call someone out, or call out a comment, or make things awkward, and these also can be really powerful moments that can help slowly turn back the tide of where we are at.”
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I am a white, cisgender male who was born to privilege. One of my ancestors was a surgeon for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
My wife, a Black American whose ancestry includes white blood and Native American blood, is hesitant to ride her Honda Rebel motorcycle because of the danger she feels on the roads of Vermont.
One day last year, a pickup truck pulled up alongside us, and the driver shouted “you dumb n—— b——” at her. That is a wound on both our hearts that has no mending.
Things have to change.
Maybe the election of Biden and Harris brings some hope — like pushing the reset button, one of my sources said. But I don’t know so much about that.
What I do know is that it is not up to Black people to educate people with white skin about race in the United States. It is up to those of us with white skin to educate one another and to listen to our friends with black and brown skin.
Being a white ally is not a part-time job. It is a full-time gig. If this bizarre election and tangled, tragic time has taught us nothing else, maybe we all can at least remember that.