The Trump presidency appeared to be teetering on the brink of disaster at the end of his first six months in office. President Trump’s approval rating at 36% was lower than that of eight of the past nine U.S. Presidents at this point in their presidencies. Trump, his staff and family have been dogged by the investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Most significantly, the Republican’s healthcare fiasco leaves the President’s campaign promise to repeal Obamacare unfulfilled.
Amid the chaos surrounding his presidency, the question arises, "Will Trump have the capacity to bring about any meaningful change that will have long-lasting positive consequences for America?" Some may find it difficult to believe that the answer is a resounding yes! Trump’s campaign rhetoric which appealed to racist ideology brought long simmering racist feelings to the surface.
Trump’s bombastic ascent to the presidency has forced American racism out of the shadows into full light. It has made expressions of overt racism politically okay. Trump has helped to create an atmosphere in America in which whites can openly express their anger and resentment toward the progress made by people of color in the society.
Whites are now free to state their prejudices without feeling embarrassed about being called racist. They can once again openly express their perceived fear of the loss of a superior position in the United States’ caste system. This current racialized atmosphere has caused many whites to reflect upon their position and privilege in the society; especially what the loss of that privilege would mean in the country with its rapidly changing demographics.
From racist tirades of politicians telling African Americans to go back to Africa, to those desiring a return to the Jim Crow era, to hate crimes, race has exploded in the everyday consciousness of Americans. It is the topic being discussed in the media, on television talk shows, on the internet, in workshops, and around the kitchen table. The result is that positive actions are also taking place: white allies of blacks are posting on Facebook, encouraging other whites to engage in the uncomfortable discussion of race. Trump has been the catalyst for these many discussions, whatever their content, about race and racism that are now taking place across the nation.
We the people must finally come to terms with our country’s original sin, slavery, and its legacy of racism. Racist ideology created in the late 1770s in this country has dominated the collective American mind since; it took on even more sinister meaning during the Jim Crow era. The 1954 Brown decision, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, all were believed to be indicators of changing attitudes and a nation progressing toward racial equality. Major changes did occur in the society; but with each legal signpost of the lessening or elimination of racism, there was resistance. It took almost 20 years after the Brown decision for public schools in the United States to desegregate . . ., but not without protests and white flight. Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts brought significant changes in American society, but what remained in the collective American mind was the “unworthiness” of those perceived to have benefitted from these changes, accompanied by lingering anger and resentment.
President Trump has made citizens of the United States come face to face with American racism. We have hidden it, made excuses for it, changed its form, and most recently denied that racism exists in America. With the election of President Barack Obama, we believed that somehow that we had become a post-racial America. America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights struggles, and rebellions against racist oppression were magically erased. The election of Barack Obama as president, however, touched core racist nerves in a large segment of the American white population. The myth of white superiority was shaken and the fear of the loss of white America began to be voiced in the mantra of “We Want Our Country Back”. Donald Trump gave permission to voice these sentiments that came with a hope of white supremacy restored.
Racism has always been a plague on American society. Until Trump’s insistence on racist talk, Americans were unable to have open, honest national conversations. When a group of white Americans were asked to describe their greatest fears of discussing the issue of race, the responses were illuminating. The fear of black anger and of offending blacks were reasons given by white respondents as to why whites avoid engaging in conversations about racism in America. Deeper reflection suggested the fear that blacks might be angry and offended if they perceived the discussions as half-hearted, or dishonest. The most telling reason provided by the respondents for avoiding conversations on race, however, was the protection of the white self from judgement, and loss of esteem. All the reasons given for avoiding the discussion of racism illuminated an uncomfortable truth - much of white America - at least at some level – was aware of the benefits of racial inequality in the United States.
It is white denial of this uncomfortable truth and the reluctance to face it, that prevents the healing of our nation that must take place. The mantra of the 1960s still rings true, “no justice no peace.” Only through honest dialogue regarding the gains, the losses, the privilege and the pain that accompany racism can America heal this gaping wound that has existed for almost 400 years in our society. Will black and white Americans take this opportunity to seek each other out, open their minds and hearts, share their hopes and fears? It is far too early to tell what accomplishments President Trump may or may not achieve, but unknowingly he has opened the door for Americans to step in and talk about our original sin.
Have we the courage to face each other candidly so that we all can be free of the shame and the burden that racism has forced upon us? Our future as a nation depends upon it.