In a scene from the 1992 Denzel Washington–directed movie Antwone Fisher, the central character shows up on the doorstep of his childhood foster home and is greeted by a woman who had spent years sexually abusing him when he was young.
“Come here, baby,” she greets him. “Don’t touch me,” he snaps.
He is no longer a little boy, but rather a man matured by the U.S. Navy.
“I’d like to speak to Mrs. Tate,” he tells his tormentor, referring to the foster mother who had spent years treating him like a disposable diaper and “beat me to dust” until he ran away at the age of fourteen and got into trouble before finding his way into the military.
Fisher was placed with the Tates, a deeply religious couple, when he was two years old. His father had been killed before he was born. His teenage mother gave birth to him while she was in jail.
“Oh nigga, hug my neck!” Mrs. Tate says with a smile while trying to embrace him, as though she were a long-lost friend, not an evil that had nearly destroyed Fisher.
He doesn’t hug her neck or any part of her, doesn’t smile, doesn’t pretend to want anything to do with her. He doesn’t need an apology she doesn’t think to offer. He neither wants nor needs her approval. The scars are still too fresh, too deep, all those years later.
“You couldn’t destroy me,” he says, defiance dripping from every syllable he speaks. “I’m still standing. I’m still strong! And I always will be.”
I’m Antwone Fisher to white America’s Mrs. Tate. I don’t want it to be that way. But I don’t know how to be otherwise. The scars are too deep, too fresh. I knew we were in trouble when I couldn’t find a way to not be angry, because I had never been angry before, not in a sustained way. If a black man like me was having trouble corralling his anger, I knew it meant that anger among black people had to have risen to biblical proportions and could ignite given the right spark. I just didn’t know that spark would be eight minutes and forty-six seconds of a video of a white cop slowly, defiantly snuffing the life out of a black man on the concrete in broad daylight in front of numerous onlookers.
As I type these words in June 2020, I get that the Confederate flag came down after the massacre in Charleston. I appreciate that cities, counties, and police departments have begun rethinking their use-of-force policies, that police unions are being pressured to allow reform or get out of the way. Symbols of white supremacy are under attack — monuments, memorials, Gone with the Wind — in a way I had never seen in my lifetime. Demonstrators throughout the world called George Floyd’s name in solidarity with black Americans. New York repealed a law that had kept police discipline records private. Lady Antebellum became “Lady A.”
Protesters chopped off the head of a monument built in honor of Robert E. Lee, the man who led the Confederate army. They threw a statue of Christopher Columbus into a lake. Clemson University trustees voted to remove the name of slavery champion John C. Calhoun from its Honors College. The mayor of Boston declared racism a health emergency and dedicated $3 million in funds to deal with it. NASCAR — yes, NASCAR! — banned the Confederate flag from all its properties and events. Even The Bachelor has named its first black lead.
Still, I’m jaded. That’s why I’m having a hard time processing how to feel after years of banging my head against a brick wall and finally seeing cracks emerge. I’m not yet convinced white people are willing to do what it would take to enact the changes we need, even after the most sustained and widespread protests of my lifetime. I fully expect that even after all we’ve seen, all the harm Trump has done on the issue of race, and so many other things, that he is more likely to garner 60 percent of the white vote in November than 50 percent. I fully expect that he will win the white vote at every economic level the way he did in 2016. I fully expect that if Trump finds a way to get a second term, it will be because white America decided that white supremacy and racism aren’t deal breakers — even in 2020.
The immediate changes made in the wake of the Floyd protests were positive. But they were low-hanging fruit. White supremacy and anti-black racism have to be pulled up by the roots in order for long-lasting reform to take hold. If that doesn’t happen, if there is no real racial reckoning, history will repeat itself. The past has made that clear. When I was a student at Davidson College in North Carolina in the early 1990s, I sat in my dorm watching on CNN scenes from the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict. Not too long after I finished teaching a couple of journalism courses at Davidson during the spring 2020 semester, Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota.
White supremacy meant a race-based chattel slavery would be further entrenched after black people helped white colonists defeat the British. It meant Reconstruction, during which black people made significant steps forward even though they were only recently freed from slavery, was followed by Redemption and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and a century of lynchings. Black excellence along “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa was met by mobs of white vigilantes and their friends in the military and police who murdered hundreds of black people and left thousands homeless. Black veterans were treated worse than German POWs during World War II. White supremacy convinced white parents and school officials to be defiant in the face of a 1954 Supreme Court that supposedly killed Jim Crow — then convinced white voters to follow the era of the nation’s first black president with the election of a man whose rise to political heights was powered by the open use of bigotry and racism.
I interviewed the famed civil rights attorney and civil rights crusader Bryan Stevenson after his organization opened the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the nearly five thousand people known to have been lynched throughout much of the twentieth century. He spoke about how the Holocaust Museum motivates every visitor to say “never again.”
We haven’t done that for the legacy of slavery in this country.
“We haven’t created spaces that present the history of racial inequality in this country in a way that motivates people to say never again,” he said. “Because we haven’t said never again, people say things that are ignorant about enslaved people being responsible for their slavery or being lynched, or segregation being something that black people wanted. I think that mindset has just not been disrupted by the truth of what our history is. I do believe the truth can make us free. Understanding what has happened, despite its brutality, is key to us creating a better future.”
Neither have we fully grappled with the trauma inflicted upon those wearing dark skin in a supposedly free country.
“I don’t think we understand what trauma does; I don’t think we appreciate how we have institutionalized a lot of trauma by the way we have been indifferent to basic human needs,” Stevenson told me. “From enslavement, where 50 percent of all enslaved people were separated from their spouse or their family members, that’s traumatic. Lynching, to have people of color hanged and brutalized and tortured while others cheer is absolutely traumatizing. To have to learn how to exist in a society where your humanity is constantly denied and demeaned by segregation can be incredibly traumatizing and injurious. And even now, to live in a country where if you are black or brown and can be presumed dangerous and guilty just because of your color. And to have to navigate around other people’s presumption of your dangerousness, when you are not dangerous, it’s exhausting.”
I’m exhausted. Most black people I know are exhausted. While I want to be encouraged by what we saw after the murder of George Floyd, I can’t — not yet. Pulling down monuments and furling the flag of traitors that should have never been flown on public property — or demanding that police officers kill only when absolutely necessary, as a last resort and not because they were afraid or angry — might get us closer to zero, but it won’t guarantee true racial equality. Too much damage has been done. The wounds are still too fresh. I’ll know white America is serious about long-lasting change when they begin to punish politicians who use white supremacy and white fear as political weapons and tools. The first Tuesday in November will begin telling the tale.
In November of 2019, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at Davidson College about the 2020 election cycle. It featured John Kasich, former governor of Ohio, 2016 presidential candidate, and favorite of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Bill Kristol, a longtime conservative and one of the nation’s highest-profile Never Trumpers, was also on the panel, which was moderated by Davidson political science professor Susan Roberts. Kristol was teaching a course on ethics at Davidson that semester. I was teaching a course on journalistic empathy and ethics, and another about Donald Trump, race, and the American news media.
Kasich was the featured guest and spoke for about a half hour, then we commenced with the moderated discussion. His well-crafted image as a compassionate conservative from a purple state known for its bevy of down-home, hardscrabble, white working-class residents was likely why a student group chose him to visit a college known for its mostly liberal student body. The students chose me to round out the perspectives that would be represented on the panel. But before the panel, we dined at the college president’s house. It was there, about a month before the House of Representatives would vote to impeach Trump, that I encountered the unexpected.
As I ate a dinner roll, I couldn’t help but overhear Kasich waxing poetic about how great things were going in the United States. He’d focus on the same theme during his public talk, about the importance of being optimistic, about how “you don’t have to move a mountain to make a difference.”
It was a great time to be alive, to be an American, he proclaimed. All the anguish people were expressing in the Trump era was overdone. Checks and balances all but guaranteed that President Trump could not cause much damage, not even on the contested issue of immigration, he explained to those sitting at our table, which included a handful of students and Professor Roberts. There’s lots of talk about negative things occurring in the Trump era, but little proof, he said.
Before I sat down for that dinner, I had vowed to not say much. I wanted the students to interact with Kasich, knowing I’d be able to do so later. I got through most of the dinner having said little, other than a few niceties and an introduction. That changed when Kasich kept saying there were no real problems, that even the much-discussed issue of immigration turned out to not be problematic. He talked about the low jobless rate. He noted the stock market’s rise — and that the forecasts suggesting it would tank had been woefully wrong. He asked everyone around the table if they had any real problems and said it sure didn’t seem like it, that he was doing great. He recounted how the deportation rate under Trump was not significantly different from what the country experienced during many of the Obama years, the kind of out-of-context fact I have long warned my students against using.
“Well, the legal immigration rate has dropped by seventy percent since last year,” I quickly chimed in, expecting him to acknowledge that maybe he had inadvertently papered over a more complex reality in his quest to remind us to be grateful to be American. Instead, he told me I was absolutely wrong, that such a big drop wasn’t possible.
The courts did not allow that, he told me. And there was no “Muslim ban” because we have constitutional checks and balances, remember? Everyone needs to stop exaggerating problems, he said.
We went back and forth for a few minutes. I’m a life-long stutterer. The stutter worsened when I was a nine-year-old boy trying to process what it meant that my hero big brother had committed murder and was taken away to prison. The stutter followed me into adulthood, and during some passionate discussions, it presents unique challenges. But during the back-and-forth with Kasich, I refused to let my stutter stop me. Before we headed to the Duke Family Performance Hall, where the panel would be held, he pulled out his cell phone. He relayed what I said to the person on the other end of the line, asking if it was true.
“Yes,” the person told him.
I then handed Kasich my phone and showed him an article from the New York Times. “Immigration Population Growth in the U.S. Slows to a Trickle,” its headline read.
“The United States population gained immigrants at the slowest pace in a decade last year, according to an analysis of new census data, a notable slowdown that experts said was quite likely linked to a more restrictive approach by the Trump administration,” the story by Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise said.
The net increase of foreign-born people in the United States fell by 70 percent from the previous year, to a total of about 200,000 people in 2018. During the Trump era, the world watched as the president repeatedly demonized immigrants and enacted policies that treated them as less than human. It wasn’t just the kids in cages; it was the kids stolen from their parents to deter families fleeing violence elsewhere from seeking refuge here. It was his disgusting, racist rhetoric, his attempt to implement a Muslim ban, his decision to close America’s doors to refugees and make a mockery of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. While Trump supporters have claimed they are only against illegal immigration, few of them raised a stink about the effect Trump’s bigotry had on the rate of even legal immigration, let alone the slowdown at our southern border, where Trump suggested it would be okay to shoot potential immigrants and asylum seekers who threw rocks at U.S. military and security personnel.
How could Kasich have read or seen headlines about all of that, and more, and not realize what was happening to everyday, vulnerable Americans and potential Americans? I don’t mean to pick on Kasich. As I told him, he was on my short list of potential presidential candidates I was considering in 2016. His insistence that we not take for granted the privileges we’ve been afforded in this country is a good thing. We should not overlook our blessings or the progress this country has made and continues making. Our exchange was telling because Kasich is known as one of the most plugged-in politicians in the nation, someone who knows how to properly balance his Washington-insider status with an ability to remain in touch with the everyday man.
He had led a state Trump won fairly easily. He was one of the first Republican governors to accept the Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act when other Republican governors — like Nikki Haley in my native South Carolina — decided to deny money their most desperate residents were in need of, all to remain in the good graces of the far right. And yet, he didn’t know about the well-documented damage Trump’s rhetoric and policies have inflicted upon communities of color.
Immigration was only one such issue. During the panel discussion, he claimed he had “solved the race thing” while governor of Ohio. Never mind that Ohio was home to twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been gunned down by a police officer within two seconds of that cop’s exiting the patrol car upon arrival at the park where Rice was playing with a toy gun — in a state in which leaders like Kasich made it legal to openly carry real guns.
He sounded a lot like a host of national political pundits and analysts who were quick to scold people of color for not being grateful enough and complaining about Trump too much. It has grated on my nerves for the past few years. Constitutional checks and balances may have shielded the most vulnerable among us from Trump’s worst excesses, but Trump, through policy and rhetoric, has been able to inflict an enormous amount of damage anyway. That was true even though the jobless rate was low and the stock market was high at the time. (I wonder if his tune has since changed given that the 2020 pandemic unleashed by coronavirus has further revealed decades-deep inequalities that have made communities of color more susceptible to the horrors of Covid-19.) Telling us to focus solely on those things — and ignore what we are experiencing daily in places like these — is akin to telling the battered woman to ignore all the weekends her husband beats her and just be grateful for the times he brings her flowers and says he loves her.
I couldn’t be quiet at that dinner table for the same reason I had to write this book, as a kind of corrective to such banal commentary. I grew tired of people ignoring us or telling us to shut the hell up and just take it, or that we weren’t “resisting” in the right way. I grew tired of pundits, analysts, and researchers parachuting in and declaring they had figured out how we should handle a time like this, even though they clearly knew little about what we faced, and seemed to not really try to understand.
I grew tired because I know all that those like me have done to become and remain friends with people who repeatedly disappoint us, particularly on the issue of race. There have been days I’ve visited restaurants and received poor service from white waitresses who likely assumed I wouldn’t tip well — and gave them a large tip anyway, to counterbalance the stereotype of black people as bad tippers. I know some white waitresses assume that about black people because they’ve told me. I’ve patronized white-owned businesses that didn’t even have the decency to turn off Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh while serving me, and I would feel guilty if I “punished” them for their conservative beliefs and leanings by avoiding those businesses. But the pundits who lament white guilt know nothing about that form of everyday black guilt in Trumpland.
Trumpland includes places throughout the United States where white people overwhelmingly support Trump in spite of — or maybe because of — his open bigotry and racism. They are places where black people have for decades been forced to swallow racist bullshit in order to respect the wishes and wants and feelings of racists, as well as those who excuse and apologize for the racists. They are places largely but not only in the South, like Horry County, South Carolina, a place where even though the population is getting whiter, Trump fans lament the infinitesimal effects of illegal immigration. These places have become Trumpland, not only because Trump became president, but because so many of our white friends from elsewhere, particularly liberals and moderates, professors and professional pundits among them, demanded that black people here swallow hard once again, to not be too angry, to not say that the Trump supporters we know much better than they do are racist, as though protecting them from that label is more important for the health of this country than helping us achieve racial equality.
In Trumpland, up is down. Those on the receiving end of Trump’s racism are told it is we who must change in order to keep the peace and the illusion of civility and unity intact. In Trumpland, black people are told once again to go quietly to the back of the bus.
I don’t speak for all black people in Trumpland. But what I’ve experienced is not an anomaly among black people in red and purple states. We love this place as much as, or more than, anyone. That’s why we felt betrayed by our white neighbors, friends, and colleagues who helped make Trump president in 2016 and why we’ve been frustrated by supposed allies since then who seem more concerned with the wants, needs, and beliefs of those who harmed us.
That’s why you need to know what it’s really like here, from someone with a lifetime of firsthand experience. This book is for Harvard professors who misuse the term identity politics in a way that suggests black people in Trumpland should just shut up and take it. It is for Never Trumpers who spend more time speaking out against those of us angry with the state of things than they do trying to rid the White House of Trump and his bigotry. It’s for the white liberal and white moderate whom Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to all those years ago in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” those who prioritize peace and calm over justice and equality.Black people everywhere face the struggle that is race and racism and are angry in the age of Trump, given that White America in 2016 decided to make a man like Trump president. But in Trumpland, it is different. It is harder to escape. That’s why this book is for those who have either forgotten or have never known what life can be like for a black person who has to navigate a region in which the blood of their enslaved ancestors still fertilizes the soil; the flag of their enslavers flies freely just about everywhere; and statues and monuments and memorials built in honor of those who raped and beat and lynched our great aunts, uncles, grandmothers, and grandfathers greet us at the schoolhouse and the courthouse and in the public square.
Here, we are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
This book explains why.