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, which were more common than the lynchings I feared, were harder to prove. This has caused persistent 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.
However subtle it may seem, racism has long been a regular part of American life. Now, thanks to Donald Trump, phone cameras, and social media, more people know what it looks like. 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 George Wallaces 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, 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. Please believe me. I swear it’s true.
The best gift of this 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. But see, that’s the thing. The members of the Klan weren’t some fringe citizens who existed outside of civil society. Today’s racist rallies have the same feature. The attendees 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 flight attendant who singles me out in Business Class to check if I am in the right seat, as I whisper to myself, “I paid for this seat. I really did.” Please believe me. I just know it’s true.
The Trump supporters chose to email and post, and brandish guns to protect what they have, all while telling me I am not feeling what I feel. They were almost saved from notoriety by Covid-19, but they didn’t take the out they were offered by science — they refused to wear masks. So the intimidation and rallies are back; but this time we can see their faces. I am still hesitant to say, or even to think “it’s because I’m black right?” Still unsure that what I feel is real. Still doubting whether 43 years of life make my perspective on human behavior valid. But, thanks to Trump, it is a little bit easier for others to see what I know; it is slightly more difficult for others to deny that the behavior of their friends, their families and colleagues may just be as bad as black people say it is. And, in rarer cases still, they themselves have been forced to accept that they don’t recognize my humanity the way they thought they did. Please believe me, I tried to tell you.
Support for Trump is, at minimum, acceptance that this is OK. He speaks loudly and tweets often. So I know they hear his message of hate. The irony is this whole time I have been whispering “please believe me” not just to my friends and colleagues, but I have also spent many years having to whisper it to myself. But, that’s over now. Because finally, Trump’s presidency has given me the proof I needed so I can believe me.
I started writing this the night before the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser reminded everyone that black people fail because they are less desirous of success than white people are and not because of systemic inequality and the legacy of their unpaid hard labor that built the country. Even when successful black people claim to face persistent race-based obstacles, any problems are because of their own shortcomings. But, as offensive as this is, Kushner, by saying the quiet part out loud, has added to my evidence. Now we have 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.
If you find yourself in quick sand, google results suggest that you breathe deeply, and try to get help. However, surviving racism requires an extra step. Both the victim and the helpers have to first acknowledge its presence. But, even where the victim is convinced that he is being swallowed, the helpers often standby, waiting on bulletproof evidence. Thankfully, Trump and his supporters have provided heaps of proof over the past 4 years that give me the confidence to flail out loud. Yes, I may continue to sink as I struggle to breathe, but I now have more hope that the bystanders will run out of excuses and finally believe their eyes.