White People, We’ve Got Work to Do

The fact that the election was ever this close suggests that whites of all varieties have a lot of soul-searching to do in the years ahead.

At this point, it looks like a near certainty that Joe Biden will, in fact, win the presidency. He’s got a growing lead in Pennsylvania, and he could very well add the states of Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia to his column very shortly. Though Trump seems poised to launch a variety of legal attacks in an attempt to wrest the election away from Biden, these seem laughable and, from most legal perspectives, unlikely to succeed. Those of us who have waited for this moment for four long years definitely deserve our few minutes to bask in our imminent victory.

However, that shouldn’t blind us to the enormous amount of work that we have to do. In particular, white people should take a good, long look in the mirror and figure out what the hell we are going to do with ourselves going forward.

There’s been a lot of chatter among the political and commentary classes about what this election tells us about the state of the country. Some are already saying that the rising left’s emphasis on socialist policies and other progressive goals cost moderate seats, while others are pointing out the gains that Trump made among Latinos and Black men. While it will obviously take a while for all of the dust to settle, it’s pretty clear that the typical media narrative about “Democratic disarray” is already in full swing, and I have absolutely no faith that it will stop at any time in the near future.

The unfortunate thing about this cacophony is that it drowns out the most important takeaway about this election. Despite the fact that Trump imprisoned children, bungled a pandemic, and called on white supremacists to stand back and stand by in front of a national audience, it appears that Trump got a larger support of white votes than he did in 2016.

Pardon me. I mistyped. I meant “Because of the fact that Trump did all of these things, he still managed to juice his support among white voters.”

White people, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Obviously, like many people I am beyond thrilled that we’re on the cusp of our long national nightmare being over, because of course it’s about more than just Trump. With him out of office, we no longer have to worry about the likes of Bill Barr, Stephen Miller, and all the rest. We can finally get back to the important work of governing and legislating, without the ever-present fear that Bill Barr is going to order a crackdown on all Democrats, or that Stephen Miller is going to cook up some horrible way of torturing more immigrants. We can begin to rebuild our alliances abroad, rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and, perhaps most importantly, finally get a handle on the pandemic that Trump managed to make a complete mess of.

However, there’s a lot of truth to the stories being run by various outlets that, even though Biden won, he’s going to have to govern in Trump’s America, and I know that this is a very hard pill to swallow for a lot of white progressives like myself. Certainly, in the aftermath of 2016 many of us were angry and afraid, terrified by what we perceived as our fellow whites’ willingness to turn a blind eye to Trump’s obvious bigotry throughout his campaign. However, I know that a lot of us thought: surely, this time will be different. Surely, our fellow white people — our family and friends, people we loved and respected, people who we thought were good and decent — would see the ruin and detritus of 4 years of Trump and say, “enough is enough.”

Alas, ’twas not so.

Sure, Biden made some important gains in the suburbs, and that’s important. However, the truth is that it was people of color that have pushed Biden over the edge into victory. Just as Black voters saved his campaign by giving him South Carolina way back in February, Black voters in places such as Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta are making all of the difference now. Any media narrative that tries to emphasize any of Trump’s victory with these groups is guilty of rampant intellectual dishonesty. Make no mistake: white people are responsible for Trump and for the absolute wreck he has made of America, and white people are going to have to do the lion’s share of making amends for this fact.

Those of us white people who are liberal have a particularly onerous burden, especially those of us who come from conservative families or are friends with those who either support Trump or voted for him. There are going to be some very difficult conversations to be had. Even if the people in question don’t buy into the conspiracy theories currently running rampant in right-wing circles, the fact that they were able to pull the lever for Trump this time means that they are okay with white supremacy, whatever they might say. At some point, it’s our responsibility to pin them down and make them take responsibility and ownership for their voting choices. The time for waffling and excuse-making — on both their part and ours — is over.

The truly difficult part, however, is deciding what to do with these relationships. I don’t pretend to know the answer, because I don’t have one. I know that it is deeply wrenching and disillusioning to think that so many of our friends and family are not only okay with white supremacy but have actually and actively endorsed it. It’s not just that this isn’t the country that I thought it was (and yes, I know the blinding whiteness of my naïveté); it’s that the people I thought I knew aren’t who I thought they were.

While I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions, I think I have the beginnings of one. In the days and months and years going forward, white progressives are going to have to engage in some intense conversations with the Trump voters (and supporters) that we love and respect, working to show them the errors and toxic nature of white supremacy in all of its forms. Just as Biden is going to have go govern in Trump’s America, we have to live in it, and it’s our job to do the hard work of conversion. It’s not going to be easy, but it has to be done. We might end up losing some of the relationships that we cherish most, but sometimes such sacrifices are necessary, both for our own mental and emotional health and for the health of the republic.

There’s a long road ahead of us, but even now I’m confident that we have the strength to go the distance.

White people, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

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