When Keeping It Real Went White

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“Are you going to cater to the whims and prejudices of people? We draw out from other people our own thought. If, when you go out to organize, you go with a broad spirit, you will create and call out breadth and toleration.” ~ Susan B. Anthony

By Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America did not divide our citizenry. We have been divided since Jamestown. The manipulation and degradation of poor Whites, genocidal treatment of Indigenous peoples, oppression of women, fear of non-Christians and foreigners, and original sin of chattel slavery, is the soil within which our noble but flawed experiment in Democracy was planted. Through constant education and fearless agitation, proponents of social justice have kept these poisonous weeds from overtaking and destroying our attempt to build a garden of egalitarianism. For hundreds of years many of us have understood that intolerance of any kind, especially racism, is as Pauli Murray described, “a deadly snake coiled and ready to strike, and one only avoids its dangers through never ending watchfulness” and resistance.

Stunned disbelief of the election results, therefore, reflects a frightful level of ignorance and denial of precisely how embedded bigotry is in America, how deeply divided we are, and how, despite our rhetoric, we are increasingly vulgar, hostile, ruthless, and overtly racist, sexist, and xenophobic. There were men and women, conservative, moderate, and liberal, who were more reflective of what we purport to the world to value, but we didn’t elect them to our highest office. This has reinvigorated the image of the “ugly American” abroad and affirmed our enslavement to ideology and our willingness to preach propriety on Sunday and vote debauchery on Tuesday at home. Working class, White, heterosexual, cisgender people, however, kept it real on November 8th. On that day, and in the weeks that have followed, they have told people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBT community, exactly how they feel. Even as I mourn the result, I appreciate their transparency because many of us aren’t particularly good at recognizing and fighting opposition we can’t see.

My eyes have been wide open for some time and last year I told an audience in Tennessee that Trump would win. They laughed. Educational leaders, politicians, and captains of industry wouldn’t have it either. After all, most of them have “diversity” statements and issue occasional missives about tolerance and inclusion because they “get it,” or so they believe. The recent election has proven otherwise. Most people, including our leaders, simply don’t understand the architecture of bigotry, “isms,” “obias,” and White supremacy,” and how they interact. Racism, for example, is racial bigotry + power + action. This means that it is not merely about yelling epitaphs, burning crosses, sicking dogs on people and murdering them. It’s also about systemic, individual, “micro-aggressive,” and often Machiavellian condemnation and persecution. Racism is confrontational and cagey. Battling it requires street-level grime and chess-master guile.

Indeed, White supremacy, the undisputed heavy weight champion of American racism, has at least 6 faces: 1) explicit violence; 2) economic and political suppression; 3) educational indoctrination and oppression; 4) conscious and unconscious bias; 5) the “othering” of people of color in popular imagery and mass communication; and 6) apathetic complicity. All of the expressions of this Many-Faced-White-Demi-God have been unmasked and emboldened now that they have a new muse with nuclear codes, and apologists leading every branch of government. This enablement has fueled a racist backlash that we haven’t seen in decades. Since the election, in fact, my son’s high school principal was compelled to pen a letter to the entire school lamenting the fact that “a teacher texted me as I drove into school. She had overheard a conversation between two Latino students: “Were you born here?” “No.” “Oh, well then they might get you.” Other Latino students arrived to school on Wednesday to be asked whether they had started packing yet. Some of our African American and Muslim students and their families have been subject to comments that are not repeatable.”

The Klux Klan, who officially endorsed Trump, announced a post election parade in North Carolina, “Black lives don’t matter and neither do your votes” has been spray painted on walls,” the President of the East Valley Martin Luther King Celebration Committee in Mesa, Arizona, of which I am a member, was followed home by an enraged White male motorist yelling “it’s a White man’s world.” “White power” has been bellowed at friends and family at school and work, Black students in Missouri were ordered to sit in the back of the bus and subjected to “Trump! Trump! Trump!” chants, and a Facebook friend posted a picture of a large first degree burn on her son’s left arm that he received after being taunted with “Trump chants” and shot with a scalding glue gun by a White student at his elementary school. Meanwhile, a white teacher in Harlem Park Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland, yelled “you are going to be a bunch of broke ass niggers who get shot” to a classroom full of Black students.

Nationally, there have been more than 400 documented incidents of racial harassment and violence since the election, targeting members of the Asian, Black, Latino, Muslim, and LGBT communities. Trump has done nothing substantive to quell this barrage of racist, homophobic, and xenophobic behavior, even though he animated and gave it refuge. In fact, he has doubled-down, placing well-known White supremacist, Stephen Bannon, at the vanguard of his administration. And many wonder why the aforementioned communities are living in fear?

President Obama has described this eruption as “crude nationalism,” but the responsibility of diversity and inclusion leaders is to be precise in our analysis. What we’ve seen is no garden-variety nationalism. It is White supremacy that is disconcertingly akin to the Aryan “nationalism” that began overtaking Europe in 1939. In fact, there has been a sharp rise in the number of White supremacist, nationalist, anti-government groups and activity in the past eight years, which has been tethered to, despite willful denials on the right, President Obama’s ascendency and leadership. The recent election was as much a racialized rebuke of the Obamas as it was a referendum on elitism and establishment in Washington. In fact, a former Clay County, Virginia Development Corporation director was fired this week after posting a Facebook message referring to First Lady Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels,” while a Tennessee jail official called the KKK “more American” than President Obama. These aren’t isolated incidents, they are everyday occurrences, as many Whites are sending revelatory messages to conventional political authority, the Obamas, and the would-be 2050 coalition, that “making America great again” in inextricably linked with “making America White again.”

Some have likened Trump to an innocent bystander in becoming a suited surrogate for the racist right. Only a racist, however, would court racists or hire them for that matter. Our nation’s practice of dismissing, explaining away and reconciling such ism and obias is what helped fuel the Trump train. If we truly reject such thinking and behavior, we should give it no quarter. Rather, it continues to run amuck. Right now, some of the most vulnerable in our midst are being mocked, harassed, and abused from coast to coast, while some write off our pain as baseless “whining.” A is such dissemblance and indifference in the face of our suffering an act of friendship? Are we not our brother’s keeper?

Obama had to have a pristine “pedigree” to get elected and zero skeletons to remain in office. Trump won with more chains of misdeeds wrapped around him than Jacob Marley’s ghost. America would never elect a person of color with Trump’s flaws. And look at how qualified Hillary is. Now she’s on the outside looking in, thanks, in part, to half of the White female electorate voting for Trump. Black women voted for Clinton at a higher rate than White women, proving yet again that, according to historian John Grant, “racial identity continues to trump class and gender.” “If Black people were 55 percent of the population” like women, joked Chris Rock, “Flava Flav would be President.” So yet again, despite White women rejecting the “good old boy’s network” rhetorically, millions threw their chips in for one of “their” men again, despite his misogynistic and abusive behavior. How forgiving they are of one of their own. Many of the same people who voted for Trump would have called for Obama’s impeachment if he would have mistreated women the way the former has. The double standard is nauseating, and as a result, many people of color will now reject every finger-waiving rebuke concerning “standards” and “character” from those who preach to us while empowering such a person.

In the end, millions of us, despite our history, have drunk from the mythical cup of American exceptionalism. We continue to believe that we’ve left our racial and intolerant rifts in the rearview mirror and that we are immune to the type of megalomania, fear mongering, and scapegoating that has thrown the world into chaos more than once. More than that, we are in complete denial of how embedded and powerful bigotry is in our midst. This is why I knew Trump would win. He has been the astringent that helped bring our latent anxiety and anger to the surface and empowered it. By the time the Republican and Democratic establishments took his campaign seriously, the die was cast and the ship had sailed. Most people of color have seen this underbelly of hatred almost daily since childhood, while “good White folks” have often dismissed our victimization as “isolated,” despite evidence to the contrary. Now we pay the price for this lacuna in consciousness, for as President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Don’t despair or mourn though. Let us learn from this and get back to work. Perhaps more people will listen and be proactive in a collective effort to make diversity and inclusion a daily priority, to make social justice the strongest and most beautiful flower in our garden of goodness. Let us hold the Trump administration accountable and make it clear that the campaign is over and that the President-Elect and all of his supporters should reject bigotry, intolerance, and White supremacy in all of its forms. Let us go from when keeping it real went White, to when keeping it real went right. It isn’t too late, but if we continue to live in denial and look to someone else to do the work, things can and will get worse. I am hopeful, however, because I, like James Russell Lowell,” believe that truth is “forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Founder and CEO of the Diamond Strategies, LLC (DSC). He is also the 2016 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance (DLA) Diversity and Inclusion Leader Award winner and a decorated educator, author, community engagement specialist, motivational speaker, and founder the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, winner of the 2014 DLA Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker and DSC can be followed on Twitter at @dstategiesllc

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