My grandmother sat at segregated lunch counters, stoic as condiments and cold milkshakes were doused on her, accompanied by expletives and slurs. My parents – despite their income and education – were denied the right to buy a house in Westchester County, solely because they were Black. A few years ago, two of my friends and I were ejected from a restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village for demanding equitable treatment. Once outside, the manager, inches from my friend’s face with his spittle spraying her face, called her a nigger. My daughter, while waitressing at an establishment, after singing happy birthday to one of her customers, was praised with the statement “You coloreds have so much talent.”
I recount these instances as a reminder to myself that I shouldn’t be surprised at last weekend’s events. I shouldn’t. But I was – largely because it was a painful realization that racism has not and perhaps will not ever go away. The voices of those who hate anyone who is “other” have never been absent. They were muffled perhaps when Barack Obama was President, but that only made them angrier. Once the White House became occupied by someone they perceived as sympathetic to their cause, they no longer felt the need to be silent. I know there are folks who voted for Donald Trump because they felt he was a better alternative to Hilary Clinton. I believe them when they say they do not ascribe to nationalist beliefs, that felt the swamp needed to be drained, and the businessman turned reality star turned President was the way to address what they felt needed fixing in this country.
I read “Hillbilly Elegy” in an effort to understand, and to an extent, I did. JD Vance’s narrative is Ta-Nehisi Coate’s narrative (“Between the World and Me”) on the other end of the pendulum. Here’s the problem: When your Chief strategist is admittedly and proudly the founder of a platform for the alt-right; when your staff includes a man who spent his high school years bemoaning the presence of Latinos in his midst; when the Commander in Chief himself has been fined by the federal government for denying people of color access to properties he owned, separating oneself from that narrative is a heavy lift. And all the Ben Carsons and Omarossa Manigaults in the world cannot undo that.
My grandmother and parents had passed away before Barack Obama was elected. I imagine they would have been proud – even my father, who was a registered Republican.
I think about what they would feel today. I weep for their bravery and conviction in the face of racism and discrimination, only to know just how little progress we have made.