At the End of the Obama Era, We Prepare to Resist the Dark Dawn of The Donald
The inauguration of Donald Trump looms like a cloud of dread over many Americans' collective heads. Trump is an incoming president with no history of public or political service whatsoever, no experience in diplomacy, who ran largely on the xenophobia and racism of a largely under-informed populace and who has been immersed in controversy and scandal virtually for his entire decades-long stint in the public eye. Trump's rise is seen by many as a reaction to the Barack Obama presidency and as part of a backlash against the emergence of Black Lives Matter, marriage equality and a host of other factors that indicate America may not be as white, straight and Christian-centric as many on the right would rather it be.
These are foreboding times.
The hand-wringing over 2016 was mostly a preamble for something more honest: anxiety about what 2017 was to bring. This is the first year of the Donald Trump presidency and the first year of grappling with what we've created over the past eight years. Those were trying years for Black Americans, a bitter pill that was made easier to swallow by the sentimentality and pride that many got from Barack and Michelle Obama. He inspired people, even when he wasn't always working in their best interest or speaking to their needs. The fact that Trump's ascendance was due in part to contempt for Obama isn't inherently unique. After all, Obama's promise of change and optimism was a welcome antidote to George W. Bush's polarizing foreign policy, economic failures and domestic bungles like his administration's disregard for New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
But the dawn of the Trump presidency suggests something far more dangerous than just the waxing and waning of opposing political sides. Trump actively promised his base that he would return America to the sepia-toned days of yesteryear, and he tempered those promises with enough coded (and not-so-coded) language to indicate what that meant for non-white people who have been battling for effective changes in the way America views and interacts with its Black, brown and LGBTQ citizens.
"Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society – a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent – share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee, and many other places within our country," Trump said during a speech in Wisconsin while on the campaign trail. His nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, wrote in a 2015 Washington Post op-ed that “legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States . . . What we need now is immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together.”
In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship due to allegations of racism. At the time, Thomas Figures, a Black assistant US attorney, testified that Sessions had expressed contempt for Black organizations like the NAACP and the SCLC. "On the day in question, Mr. Sessions came into my office just as I was reading a newspaper account of some of the recent action of the NAACP. I casually mentioned that development to Mr. Sessions. Mr. Sessions in response stated that he believed the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH and the National Conference of Churches were all un-American organizations teaching anti-American values. This statement clearly was not intended as a joke."
And the incoming vice-president has a long track record of anti-LGBT rhetoric and legislation. Mike Pence views LGBTQ citizens as a threat to the core "values" of this country and voted to maintain “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military while also declaring that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family” as he voiced his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex weddings.
It seems like only one side cares all that much about "togetherness." It doesn't feel like everyone believes in all Americans coming together to push to a brighter future. So many of our fellow Americans have decided that they don't like this brave, new world of brown, gay and Muslim folks living and thriving as full citizens should, so it seems foolish to be preoccupied with performance "unity" with people who believe us to be a threat. And that's where Obama's message of hope became less compelling over the course of his administration. We couldn't make ourselves believe it anymore—even as we found some kind of comfort in this inspirational Black family as the face of American possibility.
It didn't help things that Obama himself was so invested in presenting Black desperation as if it is born of the same spirit as white supremacy and racism.
Even in his farewell address, Pres. Obama felt the need to begin his commentary on race in America by criticizing those who have made white Americans feel cornered, before he acknowledged that Black Americans have been feeling cornered from the moment we arrived in this country. It shouldn't be a shock to anyone at this point—our President has long believed in finger-wagging the Black community when discussing American racism. It was fitting that this would be part of Obama's final message when it's been a part of his platform for so long.
"Hearts must change," Obama said during his farewell address. "It won't change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction -- Atticus Finch -- (applause) -- who said "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
"For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he's got all the advantages, but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen. "
Black Americans have always listened. We've never had any other choice. We had to hear the justifications for slavery, for Jim Crow, for economic blight in our communities. We've had to listen to excuses for why police won't stop shooting us. We've had to listen as we're blamed for the struggles of entitled white Americans who somehow don't hear or understand how they've culturally benefited from our collective subjugation. Obama also charged white Americans with "acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised."
Obama's faith in America was as much a necessary component for his political rise as America's belief in him had been. His own multi-cultural background and the evolution of his career and persona are inextricably tied to this belief. But as high-profile incidents of racism amplified the contempt that Blacks have faced throughout our time in this country, his universalism felt more hollow. His calls for togetherness felt empty as white Americans raised funds for George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, and even more so as Donald Trump began storming the White House during the 2016 campaign season.
As such, Obama became something of a Presidential Will Smith— a dapper and charming spokesman who evokes a sense of pride and affection from Black people, but who also avoids pushing the mainstream enough to actually provoke anything resembling a cultural shift. It's a thankless position, to be sure, and even in recognizing that, we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Obama's critics who found this to be frustrating and, in cases where he decided to admonish the Black community for it's apprehension and distrust, it was infuriating.
There has been an overabundance of Black pain on full display for the world to see over the last several years. That pain gave rise to a new generation of Black activism, there has been a mobilized sense of purpose for an entire generation of Black people. It often put them at odds with our fashionably likable Black president, who seemed to default to chastising the approach as opposed to openly acknowledging how necessary that approach had become. But as detrimental as Obama's interactions with Black activism could be, it could be said that he wasn't an outright, unapologetic enemy of the movement.
What's about to take place on Capitol Hill will prove that these years since the killing of Trayvon Martin have been preparing us for the inevitable clash between the white supremacist status quo and the dissatisfied radicals who have been holding a light up to this country's transgressions. Donald Trump's winning platform of racist pandering and inflammatory rhetoric made it clear that many people in this country believe that we can't go forward without taking steps back. It cannot be allowed—not with all of the blood on the ground from the struggles we've faced in just getting to this point.
The litany of Black entertainers shilling for Trump—from Jim Brown to Chrisette Michele to Kanye West and Steve Harvey—keep presenting themselves as champions for the people, as if they are "bridge-builders" between the Black community and an opportunistic politician who has done nothing to earn the trust they're suddenly so eager to give. They aren't being honest about who he is, who voted for him and what his cronies plan to do with the power they've gained.
We can't be unified with this man in office.
On the January 11th episode of ABCs hit sitcom black-ish, family patriarch and main character Dre Johnson delivers an impassioned monologue to his comically clueless white co-workers about Black grievances following the election of Donald Trump. After Dre says he's tired of the arguing amongst the co-workers, his boss Stevens accuses him of not caring about the country.
"What did you say to me?" Dre shot back. "You don't think I care about this country? I love this country, even though at times it doesn't love me back.