A Divided America Gave Us the Problem of a Donald Trump Presidency. Integration is the Solution.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
Many of us are still in shock: How could so many Americans know the hurtful, unacceptable things Donald Trump has said about and done to other human beings — not to mention the outright bigotry his campaign failed to thoroughly disavow — and vote for him anyway? The Clinton campaign certainly made that outrage a centerpiece of their strategy.
But a week out, that shock — and that strategy — seems more and more naive. If you have white skin, and have close friends with skin of a different shade, you are likely to know that they are not as shocked as you are. They are likely not shocked at all.
There was hate in Donald Trump’s campaign, and we all knew it, but it was ignored by many voters, because it simply didn’t hit close enough to home.
How can that be? Because we all have, to some extent, a tragically too-limited understanding of our own humanity, of how much greater are our commonalities than our differences. And that’s because we self-segregate.
Donald Trump did not divide us. We were already divided, by color and class and gender and life experience, and further atomized by personal technology and social media that allows us to retreat deeper into ourselves even as it connects us in a superficial way, lulls us into a false sense that we are more connected than ever. But he certainly exploited our divisions to his advantage in the polling booth. He polarized us.
As for how to characterize the poles toward which these atoms drifted when casting their votes, I’ll throw out one possible two-part framework:
- There’s a division between people who have faced outright, or at least begun to grapple with, the fact that institutional racism and sexism, aided and abetted by everything on the spectrum from unconscious bias to outright bigotry, are baked right into the American pie, and those who have not. (Note: I am not saying that we are different from other countries in this regard, just pointing out the problem here.)
- There’s also a division between people who, ultimately, let their feelings of hope and optimism lead them to their decision at the polls, and people who voted with anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, even desperation.
All these negative emotions are legitimate reactions to living an American life today. Too many people are suffering in too many ways, from people who don’t have enough to eat or a place to live or can’t get a job or are worried they’ll lose what little they have to those who just feel bad. Or lonely. Or dissatisfied — not hungry, but never full enough. Empty, despite the abundance all around them. And, probably, more than a little avoidant. A “basket of deplorables”? No. I might call it a basket of the hopeless, heedless, isolated, and, yes, ignorant. A basket full of people across all demographic groups.
I say this because, until recently, I was completely ignorant myself, and I am now only just slightly less so.
I have spent the past 2+ years working for Bloomberg Politics, covering the presidential race, as an editor. I am, of course, processing the results of this election as a journalist as well as a citizen, and feeling pretty damn bad. Before that, I worked at The New Yorker, helping to steer the magazine through a period of dizzying change in the media industry and the world at large, brought on by technology.
At the same time, since my son Drew entered pre-Kindergarten in the fall of 2012, I have spent many hours thinking about, and working to chip away at, school segregation — “the problem we all live with,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones’ indelible This American Life piece put it. That piece focused largely on schools in Missouri. But believe it or not, the schools in New York City, this richly diverse and “liberal” place, are deeply, deeply segregated, by race and by class. (Call them apartheid schools — John Oliver does. Hannah-Jones, movingly, shone a light on the problem from a personal angle.)
Why are they this way? In large part because of choices made by white parents.
I was shocked (there’s that feeling again!), as a new public school parent, to realize that this was true, and that I was coming dangerously close to contributing to the problem. And it’s been an ongoing series of shocks and revelations since then, about myself, and my city, and our country.
Almost every single one of us is guilty of seeing the world as we want to see it, and there simply aren’t very many structures in place to connect us to one another outside of the woefully narrow boundaries of identity and class we’ve set for ourselves. We don’t talk, we don’t spend time together, we don’t have discourse. We don’t educate our children together. We might not even know a single person who is all that different from us in any significant way. And we run from conflict with those who have opposing perspectives or opinions.
In our isolation, further hobbled by an incomplete awareness of history, and, of course, avoidance of shame and pain (shame and pain being things we humans avoid, to the detriment of progress of all kinds), we are blind to the deeply rooted injustices of American life and the stranglehold that white people — white men, predominantly — have on power.
I now have two kids — Drew is 8, and his sister, Lizzie, is 5 — and through their school, the same place Drew started pre-K five short years ago, I have lucked into what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would call a “beloved community” — or, at least, a beloved-community-in-progress. And my participation in that community has changed my life, through the relationships I have formed, with our teachers, and other parents, and other people’s kids, and through watching my kids become people who inherently understand things I didn’t even get a glimmer of until I was an adult.
I’m in awe of our principal, Sandra Soto, who urges each of us, all the time, to “come out of your comfort zone.” “We have work to do before Martin Luther King’s dream is fully realized,” she writes in a newsletter that went home yesterday. “But regardless of how you may have voted, I would like to invite you and your family to the Brooklyn Arts table. We are committed to building a community in which each one of you feels valued, accepted, and safe to be fully yourselves, free of fear.”
She goes on to quote Verna Meyers — “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance” — and says, to all of us, “Let’s dance. Get to know someone who’s different from you. You may have tried to do this before only to feel excluded or misunderstood. Try again. The exchange of your stories will serve as a bridge that connects you.”
I now have bridges I never dreamed of. And beyond my own community, there are so many other good folks I have met through my participation in a swelling movement to desegregate New York City schools and create meaningfully integrated school communities. As my friend David Tipson put it, such communities are “real,” really beginning to form in America, despite what the prevailing narrative may tell us, and “can be seen as a form of resistance — a refusal to live by the rules of an inequitable society and a positive decision to live as things should be.”
Believe me when I say that only when I realized how terribly ignorant I was did things start to look different to me: my life, our country, the possibilities for our future. I am ashamed of the unearned privilege I have enjoyed my whole life. I am so very sorry that America behaves the way it does. I am so sorry for the things I have done that have contributed to the problem. Facing the painful truth of institutional racism and ever-present discrimination, listening to people who have personally suffered under it, and trying, in my bumbling way, to lend my white-lady power to the cause, has shown me a glimpse of another world, in which we all break free from the cycles in which we are trapped and get in touch with our wonderful, awe-inspiring, basic humanity. In acknowledging a core sickness in our country, and working to heal it, I am finding optimism, purpose, and hope.
The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.
I have also realized how much more we could do as a nation if we fully harnessed the power of ALL our citizens. If all the voices were heard. If everyone truly got a high-quality education. How better to build a democracy than to weave it out of a truly diverse web of ideas? And have we really not grasped the idea that diversity is fundamental to the survival of the species? Why would we live our lives with so much light and truth and power and intellect not fully plugged into the power grid? Never mind the lack of morality: How does that serve any of us in the end?
In trying to diagnose what’s been happening in our country, our marketplace of ideas has become awfully crowded. But perhaps a few ideas have been missing, or drowned out, or we’ve failed to draw a few key connections between them. We certainly need to get more organized, no matter what happens with our political parties. (Linking the fight against climate change more closely to various civil and human rights movements is a powerful first step. Weaving the folks who think getting money out of politics is key to our survival into that coalition would be good as well. And the ones who are working to get more women to run for office. And the ones who are working to mobilize moms for political action.)
There are surely other roads to the realization that America has its head in the sand about our race problem, and that it never gets all that much better in large part because of the everyday decisions of well-meaning but clueless white people. For me, it just happened to come from looking carefully at the school system in which I was a participant.
Similarly, integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.
And this is crucial: though policy support is vital, and sorely lacking at the moment, it’s not, in the end, merely a policy change that will really make it happen. It’s a movement of people making different choices. People breaking the cycles of desegregation and resegregation by choosing, intentionally and purposefully, to send their children to school with kids who are different from them.
In these uncertain times, we the people are the ones who must hold it together. Our democracy is made up of us. Who are you? Who am I?
I am white and a woman. The color of my skin has offered me enormous privilege and protection for my entire life. My gender has defined me in others’ eyes in ways I have only recently begun to understand — and ways that have held me back.
Experience has taught me the limits of one person’s power to change a culture. All you can ever really change is yourself. But when a changed you forges connections with other people, you can make greater change. A network of people can make great change. The network effect created Donald Trump. The network effect can send him packing.
But we have to be very mindful of our role as nodes in the system. What are we putting out? What are we taking in? Are we paying attention? Are we thinking critically? And to whom are we connected? Are we a part of diverse communities, or homogenous ones? Are we committed? When we have a common good in our sights, are we pulling toward it, together, or scattering our energy, diffusing it? Are we helping, or hurting?
Amidst the fear, anger, and uncertainty, new leaders will emerge. I learned long ago, in Nebraska, partly by watching the leaders in my own family and partly through the NHRI “project” and the inspiring, dedicated mentors I had there, that anyone can be a leader, from wherever they are, and, if called to lead, must do so. Leaders create their own authority, and exercise it in the world.
There’s some analysis telling us that this was a “change” election, and a flip was gonna happen, no matter what. Hmmm. Surely, change is needed — but wouldn’t we rather the change be a clean break in that pattern of discontent and rebuke?
Elites need to take better care of those suffering economic pain. People who voted for Trump need to open themselves up to the possibility that he can’t deliver what they want. And every single one of us needs to look into the mirror. The same impulse that caused people to vote for Trump — here is a quick fix, a savior, someone else to solve my problems — might have caused other people not to vote at all or to choose a third-party candidate. My one little vote, or lack thereof, won’t matter. It will be ok.
A feeling of helplessness got us here, and it’s the same dangerous impulse that could utterly wreck our society, at worst, and at the very least, stop us from making consistent progress: I’m not needed to speak up, intervene, take action. It’s someone else’s problem, or at least not mine. But this is on each of us, on the outsized expectations we have for our elected leaders in comparison to the amount of work we are willing to do for ourselves, on the protection we offer or fail to offer those who have none, on the sacrifices we make for the greater good or the selfish actions we take, on the individual choices we make every day.
You, friends, have keen minds and big hearts and strong shoulders.
There is a Buddhist saying: “The glass is already broken.” It was true on Nov. 8, and it was equally true on Nov. 9. Enough denial. Face the facts. And then resist the status quo, by helping to lead us somewhere better.
So, if you’re still with me, maybe you’re asking: What can I do?
Here are some things that I have been doing and that I plan to do more of going forward. Maybe you’ll want to try them, too.
- There is, of course, one very important thing in the mix besides race and power: MONEY, much of it money that flows out of our own pockets every day. Our consumer choices are under our full control. Think very carefully about every dollar you spend and where that money ends up. Don’t fund hate or corruption or injustice or environmental degradation. More specifically, look out for companies that do business with Trump. Reward companies that try to do good.
- Support nonprofits that do good work supplementing government services that may be in jeopardy.
- If you’re afraid, don’t give into fear.
- Read (or re-read) The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
- Get outside your comfort zone in as many ways as you can.
- In any group setting, seek out points of view different from your own. Find your own voice, and use it. Amplify voices that are not being heard.
- Consider, and meditate on, the idea that our core national problems are failures to truly grapple with institutional racism and sexism.
- Educate yourself on unconscious bias, and try to find some training in that area, maybe through your job. If none exists at your workplace, ask them to start it up.
- Seek out relationships with people who are different from you. Have conversations with people whose opinions are different from yours — including people who voted differently. It is urgent that you talk with them and learn what they were thinking, and make them part of the plan to unite our country going forward.
- Look forward and back — study more history. Study, in particular, the history of the Jim Crow era, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights movement.
- Be very thoughtful about your media diet (and your children’s media diet). Spend less time looking at screens.
- Check your facts. Check your sources of information. Think critically.
- Think about your network. Who are you touching? What are you putting out and taking in?
- Understand government better, know that you are a constituent, and stay in effective touch with your representatives.
- Consider running for office or taking a government job.
- Balance careful examination of data with careful reading of human stories.
- Strive for emotional intelligence. Nurture it in your friends, your family.
- Be vigilant, and speak up for anyone who is being threatened. Lend your power for good.
- Spend time in nature, and get motivated to protect it.
- Wear your heart on your sleeve — literally. Wear something that reveals on your outside what you believe on the inside, and hope that it sparks conversations.
- Participate in those conversations.
- Wear a safety pin. Because why not.
- Reject ever-escalating expectations — for yourself, for others, for your experiences. Think about the role that social media might be playing in your perceptions of your life, and of others’ lives. Redefine “good.”
- Be joyful about the fact that you are alive, and still have time to make a difference, in your own life, and in others’.
- Stop being “too busy” to connect with other people.
- Mend what is broken rather than throwing it away.
- Help your kids write actual, physical letters to Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence, reminding them of their responsibility to take care of America’s future.
- Connect in person whenever you can.
- Smile and say hello.
- Look people in the eye.
- Don’t let barriers deter you.
- Pay attention to yourself. Notice anytime you say, to yourself, or out loud, “I can’t go there” — and figure out how to go there.
And finally, crucially:
- Go out of your way to join up with people who don’t look or think like you — at a church, or a community garden, or a gym, or a sports team, or a club. Then talk to them.
- Be open to discovering how much more spiritually sustaining a more diverse community can be. Be open to joining, or creating, a beloved community of your own.
- Go on a Black Lives Matter march, or join in any march or rally for a marginalized group.
- And if you have kids, put them into the most racially and socioeconomically diverse schools you can. Put your back into making those schools even more diverse — and making them great, which includes not only fundraising, but also making them places of real connection and dialogue. Participate in that school community to the fullest extent possible. See what you learn. How it feels. Stay through the icky and uncomfortable stuff — there will be icky and uncomfortable stuff.
- And stay in touch.
Thank you for listening.