Source: Wbaron, Wikimedia Commons
Since Trump’s victory I have had countless conversations with devastated liberals, progressives, and leftists. While there is anger, fear, and shock, there is also immense pain. One source of hurt is the intense hostility directed towards those who were targeted by Trump’s campaign and now face expulsions, restrictions, and other attacks. It hurts and is frightening when masses of people despise and/or disparage you. But there is another, less obvious, source of pain: The destruction of the myth of “racial progress.” Racial progress is the idea that the U.S. is on a path towards continual racial equality, as evidenced by integration, the expansion of rights, a decrease in racial violence, equal protection under the law, and the like. The dominant narrative of racial progress, which is usually equated with the Black experience, goes something like this:
The U.S. was once racist because it had slaves, but that ended with the Civil War. Once everyone was free, there were still lingering problems, however, like Jim Crow and lynching. But then the Civil Rights movement came along, which ensured that everyone could vote and made discrimination illegal. True, the U.S. may still have some problems with “bias,” but it is clearly moving towards racial equality.
The notion of racial progress does not deny the existence of contemporary racism, but as long as the arc was towards racial equality, the existing racial structure was legitimated, “We are working on it. Be patient!” This narrative was fundamental in how the U.S. explained its tortured relationship to racism. It is one of the keys that enables the U.S. to link its past and present in a coherent fashion, while at the same time enabling the nation to move forward, which is no small feat given the racial violence upon which it was built. Racial progress is, among other things, a coping mechanism. But Trump has shattered the myth of racial progress.
Liberals did not construct the idea of racial progress on their own. Numerous institutions and actors birthed the myth through legal rulings, history textbooks, scholarship, and activists of all stripes. Indeed, Republicans played a key role by eventually embracing Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. This allowed them to claim that we are a “post-racial” society, which kind of says it all. Two particularly important conduits of racial progress are the state and popular culture. There have been a series of shifts on the part of the U.S. state away from overt white supremacy since WWII, what Jodi Melamed has called, state anti-racisms. Such shifts can be seen internationally, such as the immigration reform act of 1965, as well as domestically, including the Civil Rights Act of 1968. A second pillar is the cultural practice of political correctness. This much-ridiculed practice refers to the idea that certain stereotypes, acts, and speech regarding minoritized or vulnerable populations is not acceptable. For better or worse, the culture of political correctness kept overt forms of white racism somewhat in check. Consequently, many liberals and progressive did not grasp just how much resentment political correctness produced, as well as how much racial hostility simmered beneath the surface – until Trump.
The true significance of racial progress is how deeply vested large swaths of the population were in it. Many liberals actually thought that racial progress reflected the nation. Thus, to see a campaign that directly appealed to the white nation by attacking racial, ethnic, and religious groups not only felt morally wrong, but was contrary to an assumed trajectory, a world-view, if you will. And that hurts.
Many have described Trump’s victory as “two steps forward, one step back.” But this too assumes racial progress. Here, Trump is simply an aberration. But if this election has taught us anything, it is that the U.S. cannot be characterized by a single racial narrative or geography. The racial landscape is far more complex and dynamic. While overarching narratives are convenient, they are false. We need to think about race in a similar way to class - as always in a state of struggle. The election of President Obama is a perfect example. It was simultaneously a moment of racial progress and it engendered massive white racism. In the U.S. racial progress co-exists with the KKK, white nationalists, and those who may not embrace Trump’s racial politics, but are willing to go along if it means the possibility of change.