My daughter was born in December 2008, just weeks after the nation had elected Barack Obama its first black president. I was euphoric, overly confident in my country, giddily optimistic about the future. Addressing her in a diary, I wrote: “I’m thrilled you’re going to grow up in a nation that is a much better place for little black girls than it was just a few short years ago.”
If she were born today, my words would reflect my disappointment, my anger, my fears for her future. The election of President Donald J. Trump and the intervening years have shown me a country that I thought was long gone, a mean, narrow and racist place that I believed had been cast aside. Nothing I have known in all my years has prepared me for this place.
This is a territory that we will have to travel through no matter what happens in November 2020, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. This ugly backlash, this fierce resistance to progress, this mindless determination to return to a time that never existed will not be so easy to purge. We are a broken nation now.
Even my Alabama childhood spent in the shadow of Jim Crow was tempered by a cautious optimism that the nation was moving forward, embracing its principles of justice and equality for all, beginning to acknowledge a history of bigotry and oppression. After all, the presidential campaign of George Wallace, with all its contempt for black Americans, captivated only a small minority of voters. His overt racism was shunned by the political establishment, black, white and brown, old and young, Democrat and Republican.
That’s not to say that the political establishment shunned all racism. Richard Nixon beat Wallace with a Southern strategy that used coded language to signal his allegiance to white voters who were uncomfortable with the changes wrought by the civil rights movement. The Republican Party had a respect for decorum if no interest in fairness, a concern for civility if not equality.
That Republican Party is no more. Its dependence on whites who want no part of a richly diverse nation has only deepened, and its fealty to Trumpism is now total. When Trump attacked four congresswomen of color with clearly racist language, virtually no elected Republicans castigated him for his bigotry. They hemmed and hawed, they equivocated, they attacked the congresswomen themselves. They stood by Trump.
Was Trump’s language racist? Absolutely. It was as racist as his birther-ism, which insisted Obama was not born in the United States — a way of attempting to de-legitimize the first black president as a non-citizen, an African. His attacks on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), are meant to stigmatize them as something other than legitimate citizens, though three were born here and the other is naturalized. The president is clearly signaling that America is for white people.
As for Fox News commentator Brit Hume, who insisted Trump’s attack was merely “nativist” and “xenophobic,” he engaged in linguistic hair-splitting of the “what the definition of ‘is’ is” sort. Nativism, xenophobia, and racism are all children of an evil, lesser god.”
GOP standard-bearers have abandoned all pretense of decency for the prospect of victory, no matter the cost. As Trump now spews racism on the campaign trail — encouraging his supporters to yell, “Send her back!” about Somali-born Omar — Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), whom I had (wrongly) respected as an honorable man, joined the frightening bandwagon, telling a right-wing Alabama political website that he would pay the airfare for the four Democrats to go live in Venezuela “so they can enjoy their failed socialist paradise.” Byrne clearly believes that sort of demagoguery will aid his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Trump, of course, has picked up not only Wallace’s coarse bigotry, but also his 1960s red-baiting rhetoric of “socialist!” and “communist!” to wield against his opponents. That was a well-honed tactic back during the days of the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of other activists were smeared as a communist fifth column. The next year and a half promise to be the most hate-soaked period in American politics since Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. And that wildfire of racism will be hard to contain.
IMAGE: George C. Wallace.