Atlantic City, Trump’s First America

Donald Trump was not the president, but he was The Man. Origin Story.

In the early 80’s my family moved from San Antonio, Texas to Southern New Jersey.

The 80’s was a time that many Americans felt prejudice and racism was in the rear view mirror, and no longer in our daily lives.

As we passed the Welcome to New Jersey sign on the Garden State Parkway, I distinctly remember my Dad saying, “Damon, in Texas you know where a man stands. His values. His pride. His feelings about race and religion. With East Coast people these things tend to be hidden.”

He went on to say holding one’s values close to the vest is not a bad thing, but if someone else’s values conflict with your own it can make life difficult to know where you really stand with that individual, or community.

We moved into our new home in a small town near Atlantic City. My Dad worked at Harrah’s Hotel Casino as the Employee Relations Manager.

The casino business was BOOMING. Atlantic City, New Jersey was Donald Trump’s playground. He was not the President, but he was The Man.

As we settled in to life in South Jersey, my father’s advice resonated with me every day. I learned to adapt. To most observers it seemed that the Lee Family thrived, but at what expense?

There was a normalization of behavior that I began to succumb to and abide by. In 1986 I was 17. I picked up my white friend on the way to a soccer game. I was listening to a black radio station — POWER 99 FM. To be clear, back then a black radio station was not also a pop radio station. My friend got in the car and without missing a beat (no pun intended) he turned the dial to the white radio station — 93.3 WMMR. He didn’t ask me if he could change the station. He didn’t suggest we find a station that we both like. He just turned the channel to a place that gave him comfort.

What did I do? I did not say a word.

I knew that he was expressing his dominance, and privilege. I knew that listening to WMMR made him feel more comfortable in my car. I let his comfort and privilege trump mine.

He was an 80’s white boy living by 80’s white boy rules and privileges. He probably had no conscious thought of his actions, but he certainly felt the need to normalize the situation. I swallowed my privilege. We drove to the soccer game safely under his thumb, safely entrenched in his America.

When I got into a good college it was because of my blackness — affirmative action. I was a good athlete, but that is because I am black — my biology, not hard work. I was good looking, for a black guy. If a white girl liked me, the white boys called her a nigger lover. It was a systematic marginalization plan. It was not organized. It was not talked about, but when we, African Americans broke their rules, there was always some way of belittling our accomplishments to keep us in “our place” and their privilege in tact.

I accepted a minimized version of myself so that I might be able to maximize my situation. By maintaining an environment where my white peers felt safe and comfortable, I hoped I would be “given” the freedom to socialize, work, and compete with them. Presenting myself as lesser than, I would be valued, or normalized as equal to.

In spite of this, South Jersey taught me the value of grit and determination. If you have ever played against or worked with a young man or woman from South Jersey you know what I am talking about. They do not give up. They do not stop. That relentless approach to a goal, that dogged determination, defined me, drove me and I am grateful for that.

What keeps me up at night is that my mixed race kids are about to experience the EXACT same world that I experienced in the 80’s and I am not sure that they have the tools to understand the unwritten rules of Trump’s New America. Every day I try to find the right words to explain what is coming, I fight back tears and anxiety as the same reductive comments are starting to appear in the news, and on social media. I am scared that I will not have the right words to help my boys recognize and navigate this normalized minimization while never accepting its “lesser than” messages.

What I do know is that I will dig deep to use that South Jersey grit and determination to never give up on my kids, my beliefs and my America.