Instead of just posting a Martin Luther King Jr. quote on any social medium this year, let’s actually just commit to doing some of the work that clearly still needs to be done. We’re not nearly done yet.
As I reflect back on the night of the 2008 presidential election, I saw a picture on social media from a victory celebration. It showed two young boys no older than eight, one Black and one white, hoisted up on their respective father’s shoulders, side by side, together holding up an OBAMA 2008 sign.
It felt good; I had a sense, as did so much of the rest of the country, that we’d pulled off something amazing, and that finally, finally, this country had turned the corner on our brutal history.
Come with me in your memory, for just a moment, to that fateful night, and remember how momentous the election of our first Black president was, what it meant, and what it still means. The symbolism was hard to ignore; this country once legally enslaved millions of Black men and women and, once that was done, fostered for another century a regime of legal apartheid and incarceration, all but slavery under another name. Despite gaining citizenship and the right to vote in the aftermath of the war over slavery, Black Americans had to wait a hundred years before the Voting Rights Act actually secured it for them in practice, smashing down countless barriers to the exercise of that right.
On January 20, 2009, a Black family moved into the White House, where Woodrow Wilson had once screened The Birth of a Nation and Andrew Jackson, among others, maintained slaves. It seemed to signal a new era.
On January 6, 2021, a bit over a decade later, an overwhelmingly white mob of insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol, waving Trump 2020 flags and Thin Blue Line flags. The US Capitol police were woefully undermanned and unprepared, despite the fact that they’d been openly organizing for months, while peaceful BLM protests against police brutality toward the Black community the previous summer were greeted by the National Guard. The mob chanting “Where’s Nancy?” and “Hang Pence!” while they beat an officer with a fire extinguisher was treated with kid gloves, at least insofar as any police response happened at all. At least one officer took a selfie with one of the men who breached the Capitol. Another was seen gently escorting another down the portico steps.
It’s no coincidence that this kind of radicalization accelerated during the Obama administration; the whitelash is a longstanding American tradition, employing racial violence and terrorism to uphold white supremacy. An administration premised on hope, that deep, irrational faith in the future, was immediately met with charges that the first Black president was in fact a foreign infiltrator who was really born in Kenya and who was secretly a Muslim because he’d spent some of his youth in Indonesia. It struck against the hope that so many of us saw in Obama’s election — that, whatever the future held, we’d at least proven that we had grown, and that the legacy of the civil rights movement was secure. That racism was, while not dead, soon to be a thing of the past.
I remember when my children were still children, back in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I tried my best to teach them the conventional wisdom: that racism might still linger, but it was no longer a potent force. It had been shamed into submission. Before they were born, even George Wallace disavowed his past, and a Black man, Douglas Wilder, was elected governor of Virginia and sat in power in the old Confederate capital. Martin Luther King, Jr. was granted a national holiday, the only individual aside from Lincoln and Washington to be so honored. The future was one of progress and growth toward comity, peace, and equality. The far-right was not only marginal, but patently ridiculous, all tinfoil hats and late night conspiracy radio.
I, and so many people like me, had no idea what was bubbling beneath the surface, a current of fear and anger at the prospect of a United States where whiteness was no longer default, no longer the sole arbiter of whether someone is able to fully participate in public life (in startling testament to that fact, I saw a video on social media last week of a participant in the Capitol siege being held down by police after being forced off an airplane shouting “you’re treating me like a Black person”). Throughout the last four years, we’ve seen that bubbling rise to an outpouring of violence, exploding on January 6 with an attack that threatened, and still threatens, our democratic system of government. They came looking for blood, and indeed, it was perhaps only the quick thinking of Officer Eugene Goodman, who provoked a crowd into following him away from their intended target, that prevented a massacre on the Senate floor. Goodman, a Black man working to defend a system of government that still treats him as less than, stood against a white mob that sought to destroy it.
It’s a sad depiction of the state of our nation. But it also gives me hope.
Hope is hard to pin down, and even harder to justify. Hope is ultimately an act of faith that the future will unfold for better rather than worse, and as frightening as these days are, hope is a light that’s brightest in the face of darkness. The last four years, and more broadly the last twelve, have been a chilling reminder of how intransigent and entrenched American racism is. But they’ve also been years that have galvanized much of the country’s white majority to recognize that fact and work against it, years in which Black leaders like Stacey Abrams have done the hard work of organizing the Democratic party at the local level rather than allowing it to continue coasting on momentum and moral broadsides.
The fact that Black Americans, to this day, work tirelessly on behalf of a country that has enslaved, disenfranchised, kidnapped, and murdered them, for the benefit of us all, is as strong a reason for hope as any I’ve ever seen. But hope doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for progress; it’s the spark that ignites action. Black Americans have been thanklessly saving this country, over and over and over again, and we cannot continue to take that for granted. We have to get behind them in this fight. If we follow their lead, we will build this country into what it should be. That’s where our bright future lies. It’s like the man said; only Nixon could go to China, and only those who this country has most harmed can lead its rebirth (while the rest of us need to fight like hell in the background). Why? Because they, unlike our ruling racial majority, understand that liberty, justice, equity, and right are promises, not guarantees. They don’t happen by magic; they take hard, difficult work, and must be painstakingly maintained. That work is something white Americans have spent decades telling ourselves was more or less over and done; but all that accomplished was maintaining an America that was built by and for the preservation of whiteness, all while it rotted from the inside out. Our white supremacy problem has taken many forms, but it’s never gone away. All it took was giving blatant racism insidious new names: “law and order,” “safe” neighborhoods, “illegal” immigrants, “suburban values,” “working class Americans” when used to mean white Americans.
The next generations are smart. They know this ruse by now and aren’t falling for it. Millennials, who make up the majority of the American workforce and economic power, and Gen Z overwhelmingly reject racially-coded language like that. Under the tutelage of thinkers and activists like Ibram X. Kendi and Bree Newsome, they’re more hip to the trick than ever before. That, too, fills me with hope. This strife, in its time, will pass; nothing lasts forever.
Whatever the future holds, we can make it a better one. But we have to stop waiting for the clock and calendar to do it for us. Democracy and justice are built out of the values we teach our children and must be maintained with care and deliberation. The future I see, when I look out upon this vast and beautiful land, filled with people from every continent and all walks of life, is one of the renewal of civic virtue and the practice of citizenship after decades of disengagement and cynicism. I see a future where fear and despair no longer hold such prominent places in our minds.
Where, despite everything, hope remains the theme.