I couldn't bring myself to watch the incoming election results in 2016, but I woke early the following morning and took a walk to grab The Santa Fe New Mexican. "Shocker," the headline read. "In Stunning Upset Trump wins!"
I returned to bed, where I remained from morning until night, reflecting upon racism, of course—Trump's overwhelmingly white supporters voted for a man most Black and Hispanic Americans already believed to be a racist. I lay in bed, torn between disbelief and anger (possibly grief, too, but that came later), revisiting scenes from my teens in the 1980s in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina—places characterized by the unspoken rules of white supremacy. A phrase played in my mind that captured the casual power of whiteness that instilled in Blacks a sense they must always tiptoe on eggshells: "Watch what white people are fantasizing about, because pretty soon their fantasies will be laws!"
A nightmare had come true. Trump was like a terrible fantasy produced by white fears of Black progress. I wrestled with how the country cast its lot with a world I'd long since left behind. In the '80s, interracial dating was strictly taboo, for example—and I do mean taboo, to the point that a couple testing the status quo put themselves in direct danger of physical harm. Further, recent Civil Rights history was also a taboo subject in Southern high schools, except in small snatches presented in ways that reaffirmed neo-Confederate biases. In other words, the South was characterized by a smug presumption of Black inferiority.
At my first job interview at a local printing press when I was 19, the classic "good old boy" white Southerner interviewing me had very little interest in my work ethic. The interview consisted of interrogating on my feelings surrounding school busing, affirmative action or interracial dating. I was supposed to give answers that mirrored his opinions on these subjects. He didn't approve of any of them.
And my experience was not uncommon. It was a sign of how much power whites felt they had to unapologetically enforce their will. White values, opinions and interests defined reality. Do I need to add that I didn't get the job?
The mantra in the South was that since slavery was over, and burning crosses was, optimistically speaking, bygone, racism was nonexistent. Any sociological study of Southern race relations from the 1960s to the 1980s highlighted its persuasive generational poverty, biased judicial sentencing and minority wage gap. We were not schooled to understand systemic racism. We were being lectured that it had long since passed, but we knew it was everywhere.
The president then was Ronald Reagan, a deeply racist man who privately detested Martin Luther King Jr. He was the ideal president for a South committed to silencing the protest spirit that had enacted sweeping social change 10 to 20 years earlier. Reagan offered silence and guiltlessness to the rest of the nation with his indifference to low-income Americans and his literal inability to address the AIDS crisis, thereby allowing tens of thousands of Black and gay Americans to die instead. His favorite bromide? "It's morning in America." To me this really meant "There is nothing in the past or present in all America that anyone should feel guilty about."
I remembered all this in 2016, while lying in bed and realizing America hadn't so much progressed as it had circled around its need to simultaneously deny its racism and assert its white supremacy. Reagan and Trump were linked in my mind. Reagan was soft-spoken and avuncular and Trump was crude, rude and abrasive. Reagan was a former film actor, Trump, a reality TV star. They were both presidents who enacted superficial roles. Reagan portrayed simple-minded American innocence while Trump portrayed John Wayne coarseness and vitriol. They each acted like America is a guiltless nation, and droves of white Americans loved them for it.
Three weeks ago, I watched the 2020 presidential election results over the course of several days. We now know Joe Biden received the most votes in US history. Trump received the second-highest. And I felt relief even as Trump maintained his overwhelming white majority. It increased slightly, even, and while his supporters continue to make unsupported claims of fraud or election rigging or try to stop or start recounts, the truth is unassailable—it's a desperation ploy.
Having survived the Reagan years and now the Trump years, hindsight gives me insight into why our outgoing president's delusional supporters gnash their teeth so desperately. Reagan successfully initiated the Reagan Revolution, a conservative trend that dominated American politics for at least the subsequent 20 years—Trump was supposed to accomplish the same.
Among his final acts before the election was a ban of racial and gender sensitivity programming in all federal agencies. Trump planned to substitute these trainings with patriotic education, thus perverting the purpose of such programs—kind of like conservatives in the '80s who misappropriated Martin Luther King's words and legacy. By this and other salvos, Trump seemingly hoped to derail movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo.
But he lost, so his mission failed. He lost a gambit to return to a world where Blacks doubt their own eyes and ears because power structures tell them racism doesn't exist. But progressive ideological movements including BLM and #MeToo remain intact, it seems, and influential. As luck would have it, truth to power isn't going anywhere