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America is A Divided Nation: Singing the Post-Trump Blues

December 8, 2016

 Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

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“Bleeding Colors” Calvin Coleman

From 1967 to Today

America is a divided nation. It is as true today as it was in 1967, when in the midst of national civil unrest and rioting, Lyndon B. Johnson organized the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the “Kerner Commission”). He charged them with answering three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again? The Kerner Report, released in 1968 (one month before Dr. King was assassinated) noted that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” They blamed both failed government housing, education, and social-service policies; and, the mainstream media for reporting the news while looking out from a white world with a “white man’s eyes and a white perspective.” They suggested that the main cause for urban violence was white racism and that white America needed to bear most of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. They also outlined some broad solutions to promote racial integration including creating more jobs and job training programs and establishing decent housing. Although Johnson rejected the Report, conversations started taking place across the country, as black and white communities tried to work together to find solutions to bridge the divide. Thirty years later, in 1998, the Eisenhower Foundation commissioned a follow-up report and they found that there was more poverty in America and that it was “deeper, blacker and browner than before” and more concentrated in the cities, which had become “America’s poorhouses.” Even with all of the conversations and policies, the laws and the direct intervention, America was still a racially divided nation.

It is now 2016 and even though we elected the nation’s first black president (twice) and we have seen the rise of the Movement for Black Lives and the impact of the work that many of us have done to help create a more diverse, open, accountable, and inclusive society, it now feels like we are back at the beginning and we are racially divided again. We are less than three weeks into the world that President-elect Donald Trump is creating and with every appointment that he makes, America is becoming more divided, more white, more racist, more misogynistic, and more frightening. It is as if we have truly become two societies, one diverse and inclusive, one white and exclusive—separate and unequal. The new America, the one that is supposed to be Great (again), looks shockingly similar to the old America, the one that was hostile and unwelcoming to people of color, the LGBTQIA community, and women. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s #ReportHate database, since the election, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of hate crimes happening across the country—including anti-Black, anti-immigration, and anti-women sentiments.  This is not my America, it is the America of my grandparents and it is why they marched, why they got arrested, and why they worked for change. It is the America that the Kerner Report talked about when they noted that in order for real change to happen, it would require every American to adopt “new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.”  It is in this old divided America, the one that Trump seems to be taking us back to, where people like Stephen Bannon, an alt-right, white nationalist supporter gets promoted to chief White House strategist; Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, an extreme anti-Islam hyperbolist becomes national security advisor; Senator Jeff Sessions, who is known as one of the most rightwing and anti-immigration members of the Senate, gets tapped to be the next attorney general; Mike Pompeo, who voted against the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, gets offered the job of CIA chief; Betsy DeVos, a billionaire support of for profit education gets selected to the the Secretary of Education; and, Ben Carson, who once called housing desgregation a “failed social experiment,” is in line to be the secretary of the Housing and Urban Development. This is what our world looks like in the reality that Trump has created. None of these appointments should come as a surprise as our President-elect ran on a platform of exclusion, of racism, of hatred, of bigotry, of white and male privilege, and of taking us back to an America that we have been fighting to come out of for over fifty years. This is not the America that I ever wanted to live in or raise my sons in but it is the America that is unfolding before me. It is the America that some of us have helped to create.

I believe in America’s version of democracy. I believe in the peaceful transition of power. I believe in the power of the presidency, I just do not believe in this President-elect. I do not believe that a demagogue, someone who has built their career and reputation on exclusion, can truly represent the interests of a diverse nation. There is so much about this new America that is unclear—from whose voices and lives will matter to who will speak for those who will be unable to speak for themselves—but there are some things that are crystal: Donald Trump will be our 45th President and “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If we want to be the America that we have always dreamed that we could become, the one that we have been fighting for, then we must be willing to stand up, to make our voices heard, and to challenge power (like Frederick Douglass once said) until it concedes.

A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore’s NPR station.

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