On Saturday, November 7 I was heading to downtown Philadelphia to take part in a “Protect the Vote” rally. As I came through West Philadelphia around 11:45, I heard people cheering, banging pots jumping up and down and dancing in the street. Something had happened. I turned on the radio and learned that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had been declared the winners in Pennsylvania and by extension in the national election. The “Protect the Vote Rally” became a celebration. The streets were filled with people of all races and stations in life. It was a joyous occasion, a communal sigh of relief after four years of the Trump presidency. As I write this on the Monday after the Biden-Harris historic victory, Donald Trump and many of his fellow Congresspeople have yet to concede to Biden, and so we can expect a few more weeks of legal posturing before acceptance of the result become inevitable for many, if not for Trump.
However, like many people I know, I was troubled by how close the vote was and how many people voted for #45 after four years of his blustering, lying, racist policies and his lack of leadership in response to the pandemic where (at this moment) over 238,000 have died. While over 75 million people voted for Biden, over 71 million voted for Trump. We are a divided country not only in the votes but in what we value and hold dear in this country. While there was literally dancing in the streets in Philadelphia, I am certain there were other places where people gathered in defiance and grief at that same outcome.
Reflecting on the closeness of the race, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong wrote:
Former Vice President Joe Biden is fond of saying: “This is not who we are.” … But the fact that roughly half of Americans voted to reelect President Donald Trump, despite four years of watching his lying and hateful ways, shows just how wrong Biden is when he says “This is not who we are. We are better than this.”
Biden makes this statement in reference to a lot of things — our treatment of undocumented immigrants, Trump’s division of Americans based on “race, religion, gender and national origins” and after mass shootings.
But I beg to differ.
This is who we are, And, unfortunately, we are not better than this. America has been on this path since the country’s ignoble inception when our forefathers enslaved Blacks, exterminated Native Americans and denied women the right to vote.
It’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that roughly half of American voters knowingly supported a racist and misogynist whose administration separated more than 500 migrant children from their parents and downplayed a virus that has cost more than 230,000 people their lives.(1)
I agree with Armstrong’s hesitation to celebrate too much. Like her, I believe that a major reason for Trump’s near victory was white supremacy and the fear it stirred up in many white people as they watched the marches and demonstrations this summer. Trump referred to Black Lives Matter as a terrorist group, eliminated antiracism training in Federal departments, denied the reality of institutional racism and used racist dog whistle appeals like a call to “law and order” and appealing to suburban fears of violence in their communities.
Like the pandemic which has brought to the surface the racial and economic inequities in our nation, so too this election has revealed just how deeply embedded white supremacy is in American culture. If after Barack Obama’s election some people thought we had entered a post-racial era, the near re-election of Donald Trump has shown that whatever gains in legal and civil rights for BIPOC* our nation has achieved, the reality of white supremacy still lives deep within the soul of the country, particularly in white America.
While we must continue to work for changes in laws, policies and practices negatively impacting BIPOC, we must also engage our white friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members who could so easily tilt toward a leader so openly racist. In saying that, I am not suggesting that everyone who voted for Trump had race on their mind when they filled in the box by his name, but that rather that white supremacy is so deeply embedded in our white psyches that we could do so without considering how racially divisive his administration has been. We must cross the political and ideological lines and bring that conversation to the surface, not by debate and shaming but in dialogue and an earnest appeal humane values of trust, respect, and openness to people of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and ways of life.
Then perhaps we can live up to President-elect Biden’s call to be better than we are and have been.
Look for my new book coming out soon – Disrupting Whiteness: Talking With White People About Racism.
*BIPOC refers to Black, Indigenous and People of Color
(1) Jenice Armstrong. “Here’s the Deal: We’re Not Better Than This,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 4, 2020.