The Real Class War
“Be safe,” my mother told me no less than four times this morning before I left her apartment in Queens. Outside she called to tell me I forgot my glasses. I have a pair at home so I’d pick them up later. Before I could end the call, though, she said, “Be safe” — hard emphasis on ‘safe.’ Finally I asked, Mom, what’s up?
“I got an email from my Korean coworker. She was running in Midtown this morning and a white man harassed her. She says it was about Trump. Please be careful.”
I asked mom to forward the email, told her I’d be fine and hung up. Was my chest tightening anew or because of the brisk fall air, was I more aware of my body’s tense new normal? Since early Wednesday morning when Donald Trump became my president, I have been fighting the premonition that my life as a black woman is collateral damage in a war between whites on the coasts and those in the middle.
Reports of harassment were occasionally popping up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. The targets ranged from kindergartners to pre-teens to adults. Less than three days in and the harassment had reached my circle. In a time when shooting massacres have become the norm, what more was there to come?
These past few days I could almost smell what I thought was my own fear. I certainly felt it in my stomach and the headache that would not go away. So today I settled my mind on a few things. I want to share my thoughts, unmediated by a tunnel-visioned news media, with Trump’s working class — from a black woman who also belongs to the working class.
You sold me out. You bargained away the security of black and brown people, especially women, to get what you want. Whatever that is. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. And I’m not pointing out anything that hasn’t happened inside union shops, suburbs and school districts cordoned off by white working families throughout the 20th century. The fabled — rightly so — growth of the American middle-class occurred alongside the government-backed exclusion, persecution and corralling of African-Americans.
But that sick feeling in my stomach all week wasn’t fear. It was betrayal.
Fifty years after our nation’s second great paroxysm over racial inequality, still, you pursue advancement by endangering part of the American body politic. I am not speaking of the metaphorical danger provoking poodle yelps among your disdained white liberal elite. I mean the actual harm inflicted on black and brown bodies in a system where the benefit of rights and laws flows up the class ladder not down. Otherwise I would not write this letter.
Voting is a package deal not a Christmas wish list. Just like you, I am defined as much by what I consider the worst thing on the candidate and party’s menu, as I am by the best.
Though difficult, I can overlook that your candidate could only have started from the top. He doesn’t have the temperament nor humility for the upward climb gutted through by the smartest but hardest hit in my student loan generation. I have been in rooms with wealthy people. Unless they are elderly, I have rarely met anyone not from family money, the professional or academic classes or graduates of the same six universities. I reserve loudest applause for people who work their way up through crooked paths not already straightened lines.
Much more, I can allow that you see a man who empathizes with and centers you. When he addressed “my African-American,” and inner-city problems he stood in front of overwhelmingly white audiences. Even when not the subject, nearly every appointment in Trump’s schedule was with you. Like you, my family network, conversations and neighborhood public schools track me into labor with decreasing wages and benefits. If a wealthy stranger promised to help me I’d listen. Warily, but that’s for another essay.
What I can’t overlook is that your candidate, at worse, encourages racism, misogyny and more. At best, he tolerates discrimination. When he yelled his identity politics the best case scenario for you was that it wasn’t a deal breaker. But for me, you took aim and cocked your gun.
You voted for a Trump package deal that included whatever it is that you want plus the targeting of millions of Americans. Were I in a similar position I would not do that to you. I couldn’t.
From a field of nearly 20 conservative leaders, you chose the guy who talks loud and loose; who cuts corners; who stiffs people; who brags about both not paying his fair share and reaping the benefits; who is so thin-skinned that emotions are to him what a ball of string is to a kitten. That guy can be found at every level of society. That guy is in our families, on the job or grumbling back at us in the bathroom mirror. You chose that guy to deliver whatever it is that you want.
So little preparation and so much bad character could only advance a white man over a flawed but baseline-qualified woman candidate. Failure hurts a woman but it humanizes a man. When it came down to the gut check, the white guy reassured you more than the white woman leading that confetti of skin color on the DNC’s convention floor.
Your vote proves, however, that you are quite similar to your despised coastal elites. Theirs is a corrupted vision: a meritocracy, yes, but of the talented and hardworking already-elite. Their worldview is the result of having hoarded the best K through post-secondary schools and then rationalizing the upward mobility of the born lucky. I’m hard-pressed to see how both of you, from your respective bubbles, aren’t corrupting the core republican values of our American civic project.
But perhaps it is a sign of progress that I feel betrayed by Trump’s working class, not fear. The former suggests broken trust and therefore some kind of a connection or identification.
My aunt belonged to a union. Twenty years dressing beds at a Midtown hotel helped move her family from a cramped apartment into a cramped three-bedroom house with a backyard. Suffering cancer was her time off. When she finally, mercifully died at home, retirement and all her saved-up plans were still a few years off. That distance: did it appear to her as within hand’s reach or further away than ever?
Her baby sister, my mom, shared that the distance gnawed at my aunt as much as the cancer did and a stone of resentment that I did not then understand, buried itself within me. This election unearthed that stone.
A week ago, New York Times reporter Dan Barry profiled a Salvadoran hotel worker who reminded me of my aunt. It was that rare piece of writing in a national publication that acknowledged a working class woman of color as more than somebody’s victim or a poster child for poverty.
Celia Vargas, who works for a Trump hotel in Las Vegas, is every quality ascribed to the white working class male: strong, responsible, loyal and most importantly, confident in demanding the value of her labor. I have many degrees. But I don’t have that.
Women like Vargas and my aunt raised me right. I then spent my career interviewing similar black and brown women who, in the public discourse, are made visible only for ridicule and charity. But they are nearly half of our nation’s growing low wage labor force. These women tend to belong to or want to form unions to help increase everyone’s wage floor.
They are inclined towards magnanimous thinking, caring not just for their own households but community, broadly defined. They pulled yeoman’s labor during the War on Drugs, which was in fact a war on the black working class. And it is these black and brown women who will bear the daily brunt of emboldened racism and misogyny because you chose Donald Trump.
Just one or two generations ago, your forebears would have been a Celia Vargas. Because of them and earlier federal policy, on average, the white working class earns more than your racial counterparts. But our economic interests are likely not as different as your vote shows. That no leader among your many millions has the imagination to get whatever it is that you want without shivving other members of your class, speaks to a poverty of ideas and, desperation. As does your vote for president-elect Donald Trump.
But while the Trump working class waits for whatever it is that it wants, life goes on. I smiled when I read the email warning my mom that a strange man harassed her coworker in Trump’s name. Her colleague addressed the email: “To my sisters,” and that protective intimacy warmed me. I was glad that she included my mother, an older black woman with a Caribbean accent, and that my mother had embraced her, a Korean woman from California her daughter’s age.
That is the best of America. But we want to bond over common interests and humanity, not shared persecution.
You don’t have to like me, think of me as a good person or as someone who contributes. You do need to see me as a human being with my own family. The goods of this country are not scarce. They are being hoarded but not by other members of your class. Any among you who wants to work with a black city kid to figure out how to address that, let’s talk.
Be safe. Don’t make us say, be safe. I’m not interested in survival. I am thriving.