On election day, what kind of person will you be?
(Or: On Nov. 6th, White Supremacy or Nah?)
I’ve struggled with how to say what I’ve been feeling the past few days and at every mention of “love and light” I find myself singing a bastardized version of Solange’s Cranes in the Sky:
I can’t love it away…
Away, away, away, away, away, away…
Away, away, away, away, away, away!
Honestly, the song in its original, perfect form would suffice.
I know what you expect me to say…something inspiring, something hopeful, something that reminds you that in “times such as these” we should all “cling to each other,” lean on “what we value,” and show through our actions that “hate has no home here.” I should implore you to love — when all else seems to fail — because love always wins. In my heart I feel all of those things you expect to hear from me. I believe them. I am also a functioning adult capable of a multitude of feelings and equal capacity of distributing those feelings across a spectrum of causes and concerns on any given day. More importantly, though, my love for each of you, demands that instead, I tell you what you need to hear even if it’s ugly.
That thing is this: We are engaged in a war with white supremacy that we are fundamentally unprepared to fight because we do not know — or remember, for that matter — who we are without it.
I live in Hyattsville, Maryland, a small town just outside of the nation’s capitol that is home to close to 18,000 residents in the span of 3 square miles. Small, but mighty I’d say. Hyattsville today would be classified as progressive given the legislation we’ve passed in recent years: all residents regardless of citizenship status and 16 year olds can vote in our local elections, we’ve formalized our practices as a sanctuary city, in 2015 we elected our first African American mayor (me) in the city’s then 129 year history, and now the city council is majority African-American. Read about Hyattsville today and you’re bound to find quirky, diverse, welcoming, hip, and family-friendly among the many adjectives used to describe our city. Drive down our city’s streets and you’re likely to find signs that read some version of “Our community welcomes all sizes, all colors, all cultures, all sexes, all beliefs, all religions, all abilities, all ages, all types, all people” or even a “Resist” banner. Hyattsville today also bears the fruit of yesteryear: planned communities where the deeds of many homes and a public park still bear restrictive covenants limiting ownership of said property to whites only. Everyday that I walk into city hall I consciously remember these two versions of the city I love and represent because to ignore them would be the key to my failure as a leader.
Every time a hate crime happens in this country there’s a propensity, naturally I think, to feel comfort in some feeling that it could not happen where you live. Maybe it’s because your police department has assured you that they are doing additional checks of area churches, synagogues, and schools. Maybe your elected leaders released a statement that gave you hope and confidence that together we’ll stamp out hate. Perhaps it’s because you truly believe in the words on those signs. It is easy to proclaim that hate has no home here, but I’d be lying to you and to myself. Hate does live here and in some cases I know hate’s address. Even easier is to ignore that truth and manufacture a different, more attractive, less problematic version of reality that makes everyone more comfortable and comfort is the enemy of progress. Acknowledging our history and the proclivities of those around us is critical to remembering what we are capable of when social, political, and legal systems allow it.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War
What happened in Pittsburgh was a wake up call only for those who have enjoyed the luxury of equivocation. Today’s headlines pronounce that Trump has emboldened the white supremacists that were behind the pipe bombs, the killing of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Kentucky, and the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue. But this isn’t Trump’s America. This is our America. It’s the America that we’ve fed and nursed from our bosom engorged with amnesiac confidence. Some of us know that white supremacy is real, they just somehow think that as long as it remains in the shadows of the internet or interspersed between lamentations around the dinner table that it is somehow less dangerous. Others of us have been so deluded that they believe that if Trump went away, all we’ll need is a bit of healing to get over these dark ages. Then there are still others for whom every exercise of white supremacy seems to replace an ounce of hope with an ounce each of cynicism and anger. I am finding myself easily among the latter group and have friends in each of the others.
To be clear, the white supremacy I reference is not just burning crosses, church bombings, or church and synagogue shootings. Those are the actions of people and groups who self-identify as white supremacists and do so proudly. They are included, of course, but in no way make up the full breadth of its reach. I’m speaking of white supremacy that includes the entire system of social, political, and economic forces governing the lives of those who are not white. This system is orchestrated by people who consciously and subconsciously assign value to whiteness and the ideals purported by it. Most insidiously, the fairness of this system is evaluated and determined by those who benefit most from it. In this context of white supremacy even the strongest ally may find that their position as an ally is provisional.
What has been interesting — intriguing even — is witnessing the restoration of memory among those who have believed themselves to be white even though they may not have actively traded on their whiteness. We are standing in the moment where millions of Americans — some of whom who have, in fairness, considered themselves allies in ways meaningful and perfunctory to those of us that find ourselves on the bad end of an executive order — are reckoning with a fractured image of whiteness. To see yourself in the faces of the 11 people who were murdered on Saturday morning and having difficulty really discerning what makes you different must feel like anguish. I know that feeling all too well. White supremacists, however, are assured in the absoluteness of whiteness and how, for them, it is so neatly prescribed. White. Anglo-Saxon. Christian. Heterosexual. The rest of us have accepted as fact that “we” outnumber “them” yet, it’s them who are successfully advancing an agenda of white supremacy and all that it allows on the battlefields of State Houses, Congress, Senate, the White House, and the Supreme Court. We lack the identity, cohesiveness, and tactical strategy necessary to secure the far-reaching wins.
This country is founded on white supremacy and each of us has courted an image of ourselves within the context of white supremacy and its grandchildren, poverty, income inequality, school and residential segregation, and mass incarceration. Each day we make decisions that are rooted in what that system designed for us to ponder: where we choose to live, where we educate our children, who we’re willing to work with and for, and who we’re willing to elect. We support institutions and practices that advance inequality and inequity and do not make reparations for it. We are willing to ride the fence because we decide that it’s not personally important enough to make a decision one way or the other. We have collectively come to idolize neutrality as a marker of some moral high ground, a territory home only to ourselves.
“The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.” John Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
How we show up in our individual communities certainly matters, but that isn’t the territory for this battle. Our greatest opportunity to win this battle is next Tuesday, November 6th. Even I squirm at the simplistic notion of voting as an end to white supremacy. We all know that the numbers of Ds and Rs in and of itself is not an indicator of white supremacy’s advancement. What we do know, however, is that white supremacy has found a comfortable home in electoral politics and in the seats occupied by the current President of the United States and Republican members of Congress and Senate. (This should not, however, be confused with amnesty for Democratic members of Congress and Senate who knowingly support systems of supremacy.) It is incumbent on each of us to believe fiercely in the mechanics of Democracy in the same way that white supremacists have — with unshakeable confidence that they will be held accountable. Elected officials (mostly Republican) are afraid to denounce and disavow white supremacy and the actions of white supremacists for fear of losing a base of supporters that help keep them elected. Meanwhile, many of us — who are likely to vote Democrat — are hesitant to vote due to skepticism that elected officials will act on their behalf. In these cases, the marginalized become agents of our own demise and ideological purists simultaneously trade in their credibility for a withdrawal on white supremacy.
As much as I believe deeply in the power of love, I know that it will take a collective rage (and it can be peaceful) to advance this army. Which begs the question: In this election, what kind of person will you be? Are you the one that’s still able to divorce the hatefulness incited by a President and all but endorsed by his Party from the anticipated tax breaks and purported moral sanctity? Or are you the one that wants no hand in any actions that could be construed as support for this President and the Party that’s home to white supremacy? For some, this may appear to be a false choice of two extremes that ignore personal liberties. It’s not. In fact, 53% of white women made a similar choice in 2016 and landed on the side of supremacy and misogyny. This, and every election forward, is the fight for the soul of America and to eradicate, truly, white supremacy and its vestiges and sear into our memory the horrors of a soul lost.