Symposium | America After Trump

Race in Trump’s America

By John McWhorter

Tagged Donald Trumprace

I should get out of the way first that I think our President-elect is someone who combines the traits, unfortunate in his new position, of being a terrible person and grievously under-qualified for his office. To me this is, indeed, the most catastrophic thing to happen on our soil since 9/11. Worse, really.

On the question of what Trump will mean for black America, I think of an exchange I had with Stanley Crouch after 9/11. Stanley, chary of the post-civil rights orthodoxy as always, hoped that in the wake of such a concrete threat—which at the time seemed as if it might be the prelude to more such attacks—the separatist, professionally alienated strain in American discourse on race would ease in favor of a new sense of common, nationalist cause.

That, of course, did not happen then, and it won’t now. There will be no grounds for “getting past” race when the President is someone to whom black people are a removed abstraction termed “the African Americans” whose poor neighborhoods are desolate war zones.

Yet Trump’s election does shed some light on race issues nonetheless. For example, the fact that around one in four Latino voters voted for Trump and even 8 percentalmost one in tenof black voters did so stuns many. Yet these people’s votes actually reveal what one could call a progressive conservatism. Many would see it as “conservative” for a person of color to vote for a racist, as if it were still a time when racism was socially acceptable. Yet in our times, learning a little from the way our ancestors voted could move us forward in terms of political power.

In many quarters it is considered fundamental that a person of color’s vote will be determined according to whether or not the candidate “is racist.” The effects the candidate’s policies would have on members of one’s ethnic group is thought secondary to signaling one’s rejection of racist sentiment, including indications of such in other members of that person’s party (“Republicans are racists!”). As such it has been considered especially stunning that any sane Latinos would vote for Trump after his comments about Mexican immigrants in particular.

As sensible as this seems to many, it would hardly strike the naïve observer as the only logical one. Lyndon Johnson and Abraham Lincoln would be considered racists according to modern standards. Johnson casually told a black chauffeur, “No one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.” Lincoln to black ministers: “We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races…I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence.”

And yet the Great Society and the Emancipation Proclamation were decidedly pro-black policies. Yet in a Bloggingheads session with my longtime sparring partner Glenn Loury some months ago, we speculated that if Trump came up with a slate of policies for black uplift and asked black people to vote for him on their basis, the black punditocracy would, almost to a person, rise up in indignation and dismiss any possibility of voting for Trump simply because he, himself, makes bigoted statements and is, himself, a bigot in the opinion of many. A precedent was the left’s rejection of the George W. Bush Administration’s Faith-Based Initiatives program, designed to shunt funds into poor neighborhoods through their strongest institutions, churches. A Republican policy was inherently unworthy of black allegiance, Democratic wiser heads insistedand this was much of why the program was whittled down to a whisper few are now even aware still exists.

In this elevation of racist sentiment as a quintessential deal-breaker, there is a degree of what can only be termed a religious approach in many of today’s thinking Americans. As I have argued elsewhere, antiracism has come to parallel Christian faith in many ways. That faithas we saw with, in fact, the Faith-Based Initiativeshas its downsides, and these Trump voters of color would seem to have rejected it. Trump hardly offered what anyone would call a platform for black America, but his call for “law and order,” and claims that he would create jobs for less educated people, struck these people as more important than anything the punditocracy said about him. It would be hard to say that these black and Latino people themselves “sanction” bigotry against their own people. Rather, they voted on the basis of the “change” Trump offered.

Disagree though one may with Trump’s proposals, these voters seem to have heeded the words of James Weldon Johnson, one of the early leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I will defend and maintain its integrity against the forces of hell.

In flintier parlance, one might put it like this: “So he’s a racistI like myself fine and I’m more interested in what he wants to do regardless.” Or, as a Latina Trump voter interviewed said about Trump’s anti-Latino remarks, “If we lived by the comments others made of us, our spirits would be easily defeated.”

Of course, Johnson’s counsel cannot apply to physical assault. Nor did he, as an NAACP leader, mean that there should not be a battle against institutionalized segregation, and surely he would today battle what is called structural racism. However, today’s idea that our vote must entail a “stand” against a candidate’s inner sentiments about race is incompatible with Johnson’s advice.

There is an eternal mantra in the black community that the Democratic Party “exploits” our vote, but the antiracist faith prevents engagement with the simple fact that voting for Republican candidates at least now and then might make the Democratic Party take us more seriouslyand in fact, nothing else could. The Democratic party could truly take on the War on Drugs, drill down on espousing the classroom pedagogy techniques proven most effective nationwide, fashion a nationwide program helping reintegrate prisoners into societybut as long as one is commanded not to vote for he or she who “is racist,” there can be no movement hereand as such, a part of me salutes the people of color who voted for, well, even someone I consider something of a monster.

These may seem callous words in that Trump’s election has given sanction to idiots perpetrating racist actions and spreading racist messages. However, Johnson is a useful guide here as well. Condemnation and punishment alone have little effect on people who do these things. The attention they and/or their actions get amidst the condemnation is part of what eggs them, and copycats, on.

If it were up to me, I would direct all black people at whom hate speech and taunts are directed to try an experiment: Ignore it. I mean the japes and taunts, of course, not physical abuse, but still. Many will jump to object that this would give “sanction” to the hooligans, but check your faith, folks. Our ultimate goal here is not simply the act of decrying racismi.e testifying to the antiracist creed. Our ultimate goal is making the racist actions go away. There are times when the former doesn’t lead to the latter, upon which one must seek fresher tactics.

I suspect we’d see a lot less of this nastiness if we made it clear it couldn’t get at us. Yet I fear that my proposal can only be received as, in the Swiftian sense, Modest, as we black Americans are taught that to evidence fragility is a kind of strength. Like James Weldon Johnson, I’m not sure where that gets us, anymore than I am sure where Donald Trump will get all of us Americans in the near future.

For the record, I have little faith that a Trump Administration will do anything that will change black lives a whit, although I am open to pleasant surprise and will eat crow when presented with it. As such, I didn’t vote for him. However, people of color who did so had their reasons; we can assume that bigotry was rarely one of them, and these voters are an object lesson in how black America might re-examine some fundamental assumptions about what it is to be a responsible black person in the twenty-first century.

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John McWhorter teaches linguistics, music history, and philosophy at Columbia University. His latest books are Words on the Move and Talking Back, Talking Black.

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