Facing the future at Facing Race
A lot of the people I run into are angry and depressed about the election. I feel the anger, too, but it’s made me more fired up than I have been in years. The day after the election results came back, I went to Atlanta for a conference called Facing Race, the largest multiracial, intergenerational gathering for racial justice advocates in the US. It was exactly where I needed to be in that moment — surrounded by two thousand people, all fiercely determined that we are not going to yield our country to the forces of white nationalism.
One thing got clear for me at Facing Race: The election is a wake up call telling us that we can no longer afford to keep doing business as usual. It is time to come together in a way that we haven’t come together before.
First, those of us on the progressive end of things can no longer afford to let our differences divide us. Is immigrant justice more urgent than Black Lives Matter? Do we fight for reproductive rights or marriage equality? Should we be outside in the streets fighting for liberation or inside City Hall fighting for a policy change? Our differences in goals, priorities and strategies have not only kept us from working together effectively, they’ve kept us from being in meaningful relationship with each other. That’s got to stop. It’s not that our differences are suddenly going away, or that they don’t matter — it’s that we can’t let our differences keep us apart any longer, because we face a common threat to our very existence.
Second, we must face the fact that there are groups of people who have already been facing that kind of threat for years. That’s who we need to listen to the most right now — the groups who are most vulnerable to far-right policies, rhetoric, and violence. There are already political and media professionals saying give Trump a chance, we should try to work together, maybe he didn’t mean all that stuff he said. Forget it. Look at who has been targeted — Muslim families, African American communities, immigrants, Native people, LGBTQ folks, women — and when all these groups of people say they’re good, they’re safe, they’re being respected and treated fairly, that’s when we can sit back and take it easy. And that ain’t now. It’s not going to be easy to listen to these folks, because our nation is so segregated. There are many forces trying to keep us from hearing each other, and when we finally do, there are some hard and painful truths to share. But that is where we’re going to find the strength, resilience and determination that we need — among the people who have been struggling so long already.
Our third step is even harder: We need to reach out to people we disagree with. This burden falls primarily on those of us who are white — because let’s face it, many of us have acquaintances, friends and family who voted for Trump. The election was the result of a hardcore group of racist, misogynistic white nationalists who managed to mobilize enough votes to take over first the Republican Party and then the Electoral College. They may be in power right now, but it’s important to remember that they’re not a majority at all. Their success was partly due to the fact that for many years, many of us progressive folks have not been listening or speaking effectively with rural and working class white people. We didn’t hear their pain, though they tried to tell us, and we didn’t offer them a vision of an inclusive America where they feel they could belong, although that’s what they needed so badly. And so when they were offered a different vision, a return to the explicit white supremacy of a Jim Crow nation called ‘Make America Great Again,’ they doubled down on their whiteness and voted for it, even against their own best interests.
But here’s the thing. A demagogue takes power by promising the moon and stars, which he inevitably fails to deliver. Millions of Trump voters are going to be suffering some serious buyers’ remorse very soon, if they aren’t already. If we continue to see his supporters as the enemy, then we’re just helping him keep us divided. And that is going to let him succeed at scapegoating his failures on women, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, anybody except the people who are really responsible. So let’s reach out to his electoral base, instead, and connect with them, so when their leader betrays them, we are already there to listen and offer a hand. No, it may not be easy, fun or pretty. But remember, a lot of other people are fighting for survival, so we have to tough it out.
And that brings me to my final lesson from Facing Race: We need an encompassing, inclusive, inspiring vision for America’s future. A vision that is powerful enough to bring us together across our differences; a vision that will help us keep our most vulnerable people at the center of our work; a vision that will help us reach out even when we’re angry or afraid.
I caught a glimpse of this vision at the conference, as people wrestled with our identity as a nation. They asked the question, “Is America possible?” and suggested the slogan “Let’s make America America again.” Some folks started asking, what would it look like if we kept all our country’s promises of freedom, equality, and liberty for everyone? Then many other voices spoke up to say, that’s never been anything but empty words for us — a bitter irony, to live in slavery and segregation in the land of the free, to be imprisoned or deported or stuck on a reservation in the land of opportunity. And then a friend of mine pulled up a Langston Hughes poem that captured it exactly. It’s been in my heart ever since.
There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet MUST be — the land where every one is free.
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Craig White is a racial equity advocate, small business owner and frequent volunteer with the Campaign for Southern Equality. He thanks the Amy Mandel & Katina Rodis Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation for helping him attend Facing Race.