That Sinking Feeling: Trump, Quicksand and Racism in America

I saw an internet meme this year that said, “When I was a kid, I thought quick sand was going to be a much bigger problem than it turned out to be.” This meme showed me that I wasn’t the only child who had nightmares featuring quicksand. For some kids, like me, however, the quick sand nightmares fought for space in our subconscious with another threat — the Ku Klux Klan. My bad dreams revealed a persistent fear of kidnappings by men in pickups with confederate flags. History books that weren’t yet Project 1776-ed, and the occasional TV show or movie with klan rallies, or cross burnings had me scared for my life. Believe me.

The fact that the KKK turned out to be as absent from my life as quicksand, yields a complicated set of emotions. That no one that I know was ever dragged out of his house in the dead of night and lynched on a tree in the public park is a good outcome. However, hidden white supremacy, systemic racism, and personal racial bias, were more common than the lynchings that I feared, but were harder to prove. Feeling pain but being required to prove it in order to get support has been a persistent source of frustration. When the store loss prevention guy follows me around, or when a police officer is particularly aggressive in directing me around a confusing detour, I tell myself that it has nothing to do with how I look. Or when my black colleague, dressed in a suit, was handcuffed in a parking lot outside of a company meeting because he fit the racial category description of a person from an incident somewhere else, we thought about it, quietly seethed about it, and then we let it go. Not because we wanted to, but because our white friends or colleagues would either accuse us of “pulling the race card,”, or, even if they agree, they would say it was just a “mistake” or a “bad apple” and not reflective of any pattern. They felt that there was no way racism could ever present an unfair handicap against a black colleague in the race of life, especially if the black person was doing just as well, or even better than they were. Please believe me.

Thanks to Donald Trump, I got some help. Trump’s presidency gave me what I didn’t know I needed: My childhood KKK nightmares brought to life in the form of MAGA rallies and Charlottesville. He gave me present day Bull Connors in the form of popular facebook and Fox News content spreaders. And these things gave me what I haven’t had… publicly available proof that many Americans are racist, and, a good portion of the ones who are not racist are ok ignoring unequal treatment, both one-off and systemic, while enjoying the benefits of it. The election results in 2016 and 2020 put numbers to these categories but, more than the data, it is the public behavior that has come to rescue my credibility. It is a little easier to get people to think about systemic racism, if they can no longer pretend overt racism doesn’t exist. Please believe me. I swear it’s true.

The best gift of the Trump presidency was the removal of the white sheets and hoods. The racists are now being racists out in the open- even some who weren’t supposed to be racists, like the investment professional who called the police twice on a Bird watcher in Central Park, attempting to use the racist system in her favor. These stories served as an important reminder that the members of the Klan weren’t some fringe citizens who existed outside of civil society, and today’s racist rallies and other sightings have the same feature. The participants are fellow members of our society. They include the teachers who grade subjective book reports, the guidance counselors and principals who only recommend community college for some kids and Harvard for others, the principals who suspend or call the police for misbehavior for some kids, yet excuse other kids for the same or worse infractions. They count among them the managers who make hiring, promotion, pay, and “fit” decisions, the store salespeople who seem less interested in making a sale, or the restaurant hostesses who are less than enthusiastic to provide seating, and, of course, police officers who we call when we need help. It even includes the many flight attendants who single me out in Business Class to check if I am in the right seat, as I whisper to myself, “I paid for this seat. Please believe me. I’m telling you, it’s true.”

The Trump supporters email, post, and brandish guns to protect what they have, all while telling me I am not feeling what I feel. This support is, at minimum, acceptance that Trumps behavior is OK, because we know they hear his messages of hate. And if there was any doubt, the KKK members who support him certainly believe that he represents them well. It is a scary thing to accept that his non-KKK supporters are not ashamed to share a hero. Trust me, it really is scary.

I started writing this in October, 2020, the night before Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser told the world that black people fail because they are less desirous of success than white people are, and not in any way because of systemic inequality and the repercussions of the unpaid hard labor in forced labor camps that built the country. But, as offensive as this is, Kushner, by saying the quiet part out loud, added to the body of evidence. He provided further insight into why many of the teachers, the counselors, the bosses, the police, and other people with influence have so effortlessly negatively impacted the trajectories of the black lives with which they have interacted. Do you believe me now?

Childhood me was right all along. White Supremacy, like quicksand, does exist, and, just like quicksand, it can hide itself pretty well. But one thing is certain — the person who has stepped in it usually knows when she has. The sinking feeling that comes with each race-based slight is real; and the feeling worsens when you are forced to pretend it isn’t happening. But now, thanks to the events of the past 4 years, more of the people who refused to accept it, and all of the victims who were forced to ignore it, have more of the proof we have needed ever since the Klan hoods went into storage boxes.

Fox news screen. Chyron says Trump Supporters Hold Rally in Washington. Placard saying coming for blacks and Indians first.
Fox news screen. Chyron says Trump Supporters Hold Rally in Washington. Placard saying coming for blacks and Indians first.

If you find yourself in quick sand, google results suggest that you breathe deeply, and try to get help. Surviving racism requires an extra step. The potential helpers have to first acknowledge its presence. Historically, even where it seems clear that the victim is being swallowed, the helpers often stand by, doing nothing. Some say it is his fault, and the rest await more evidence. So the victim starts to doubt himself, and soon gets pulled under. Thankfully, however, we are at an inflection point. Trump and his supporters have provided heaps of proof over the past 4 years that help to increase the confidence for the victim to scream for help and to flail out loud. Yes, I may continue to sink as I struggle to breathe, but I now have more hope that the bystanders may finally believe their eyes and spring into action. I am just hoping that they save me quickly and then do some work to remove the stupid, useless and deadly quicksand before others step in it.

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