Two days after the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, I attended a book reading and signing by famed author Walter Mosley in New York City. Presenting his new nonfiction title exposing the shared fallacies of both capitalism and socialism, Mosley was the first person I’d met who admitted to not feeling down about the general election results. As a matter of fact, he seemed downright optimistic. I responded to this with relief as I felt the same.
I’m not going to sell you on the idea that Trump will be a great leader. He’s shown time and time again that he doesn’t know how government works, and does not care to learn. He ran for president because he wanted his name in history books with the word “President of the United States” beside it. And no one can deny that “Leader of the Free World” is a celebrity fame that will last longer than any reality show.
But like Mosley, I saw the Trump election as not an opportunity denied, but an opportunity to grow. American liberals love to tout how the other side of the aisle is riddled with racism and bigotry, while conveniently ignoring their own racist behaviour and personal prejudices. All one has to do is look at the reaction of white liberals to the election result as proof.
In the days that followed 8 November, I was constantly shushed and dismissed by white liberals who insisted that their interpretation of the election is the only acceptable one. Once again, I received the message many women of colour have received for years from their white female counterparts: Your voice is only needed when it is mimicking our own.
I posited that if we can survive Ronald Reagan, we can survive Trump. In response, a white female colleague said, “At least Reagan wasn’t so blatant in his bigotry. What am I going to tell my daughter when we have a president who wears his bigotry like a Nazi armband?” It struck me in that moment that this white, female liberal wasn’t interested in snuffing out racism, sexism, ableism, Islamophobia or homophobia. She just wanted to snuff out those who put her in a position that forced her to acknowledge a world where terrible people exist and enjoy doing terrible things to people who don’t look like her.
She felt that Reagan was not as bad as Trump because he wrapped himself in euphemisms and dog whistles, while at the same time destroying communities of color at home and abroad. But I would argue that racism that cloaks itself in sheep’s clothing does far more harm than any proudly worn bigotry ever could. U.S. politician George Wallace, who staked his political legacy on maintaining segregation in Alabama schools in the 1960s, was a populist who could only do so much damage in a galvanized nation ready to fight for equality. But Ronald Reagan, as Governor of California and later as President of the United States, would go on to destroy countless lives because he wore the persona of a congenial old grandfather who just wanted Americans to feel good about themselves again.
Reagan’s image allowed many white liberals to turn a blind eye to his actions against communities of colour, and today, we find ourselves still mired in the hellish economic inequality he created. This same economic inequality has left conservative voters for Trump perpetually struggling like the people of colour they despise, blaming everyone but the politicians actually responsible. If the American Left truly care, and if we really want to see people of colour move beyond the victories of our grandparents’ sacrifice 60 years ago, we can rejoice at the opportunity to engage in real change once again.
The white liberal American community is only eager to attack bigotry when it’s blatant, indefensible and involves behaviour they believe they would never engage in. Sure, they’ll dismiss us when we tell them how they exercise white privilege and help maintain the system of inequality in other ways, but their overwhelming need to feel superior to the explicit bigots of American society can be a powerful tool that people of colour can wield to their advantage.
America is only as racist as white liberals allow it to be. When white people (regardless of political leanings) want to bring about change, they do. Whether it’s calling for an end to child labour, enacting Prohibition or ending federally sanctioned segregation in schools, white Americans are an essential force to push through barriers of resistance when they’re absolutely certain they’re in the right. Trump’s bigotry and misogyny leaves them feeling uncomfortable. And there’s nothing that makes white Americans more prone to action than the feeling of discomfort.
Just as millions of white Americans fought alongside people of colour throughout the 1950s and ‘60s against explicit racism, Americans of colour now can build on the momentum of indignation that millions of white Americans feel toward Trump. And perhaps once again, we can move beyond this plateau of cooperative microaggression and marches in the street every time yet another unarmed person of colour is killed by a police officer.
If it harnesses its power properly, this could be the generation that does truly extraordinary things. Using Trump’s administration as a catalyst, we actually can hold police officers accountable for their criminality, end discriminatory practices against Muslims, or even stop an oil pipeline from poisoning the Indigenous people of North Dakota. With the right impetus, people of colour along with white liberal Americans can take this election defeat and turn into a major victory, not only for themselves, but for the health of an entire nation.