Three reporters reflect on what a post-election America looks like.
When I was a child in South Carolina, survival was never a question. My grandparents, only a generation removed from enslavement and having witnessed the cruelty of this country’s racism daily, from the Whites Only signs that plagued pools and restaurants to the way they were forced to walk through their Southern world — eyes downcast from white folks, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” more rule than reverence — knew that this was just where they were at this moment. Nothing surprised them.
Nothing was shocking. They had seen black men hanging from trees, images of Emmett Till’s brutal beating, German shepherds unleashed on children, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being spat on by grown white men and women. In all my childhood, I never heard my grandparents say that anything shocked or surprised them. They knew what their country was capable of.
Still, our nights, spent on the front porch, were as sweet as the tea my grandmother made and filled with stories of their everyday living. While so many of the stories are long forgotten, what stays with me is the way they could take a bitter moment, lace it with a turn of phrase or cluck of the tongue and excavate humor. More than once I heard my grandmother say, “I’m laughing to keep from crying.”
As a child, I didn’t know what that meant. I do now. In this way, my grandparents moved through the South, through the civil rights movement, through the country’s violent resistance to change, the rage of white people, the many deaths of black people. And like so many from their generation, they didn’t live to see the changes they had fought so hard for.
My son is eight. He wears glasses and has curly brown hair with a green mohawk, an affinity for Calvin And Hobbes and a developing tween-edged sarcasm that makes a mother do an ‘I know you didn’t just say what I thought I heard you say’ double-take. He is tall for his age, has a deep aversion to guns, knows who Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice are, has never known this country without a brown president whose platform was ‘Hope’.
For my son, enormous change, up to this point, has been theoretical. He has always lived in his house, always been circled by the same big sister, parents, bevy of aunts and uncles and cousins. Walking toward a greater good has been drummed into his marrow. And as the numbers came in on election night I watched him head to his room, his head down, his shoulders curving into his chest. I saw my son bending against the shattered promises of not only his country but also his own family.
When I was a child, we never began a meal without prayer. We thanked God for the food, for each other. My grandparents always ended the prayer with: “And most of all, thank you for giving us all another day.”
I didn’t understand the need to be thankful for being able to wake up and walk — however we were walking — through the world. But now I do. So each evening, before starting our meal, we say what we’re grateful for and what kind act we witnessed, were a part of. Some days, my son can come up with no more than “I was nice to Toffee,” our dog, and “I’m grateful for mashed potatoes.”
We’ll take it, because we know he’s growing to understand that one of the many rules of life is kindness. But on election night, as my son headed downstairs, he was slowly beginning to understand new truths: that the people who love you cannot always protect you, that unkindness can be a platform for the presidency.
That we can fight and write and teach and learn and hug away tears and bandage scraped knees and bring glasses of water into bedrooms at midnight but that this country is bigger than the beliefs of the family that loves him.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” my son said, and I knew it would soon be time for him to know the deeper truths of this country. It would soon be time to tell him about what I saw this year: the Confederate flags in my own childhood home of South Carolina and in Alabama, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia — even in his home state of New York.
It would soon be time to tell him that this country’s earliest history is one of unkindness. That the blood of his ancestors was expendable, priced along with stocks of cotton and gold. I knew the time was coming now, in the heart of his devastation and fear, with each question he asked — Will he really build a wall? Is he going to send my friends away? — to tell him that we as a people had not been meant to survive and yet we survived anyway.
“You come from people who have always made a way out of no way,” I said as I rubbed his back. “We’ll get through.” And maybe both of us fell asleep believing this.
Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen books for adults and young people.
Chalk it up to a kind of cynical Latina wariness, but I never felt convinced that Hillary Clinton would win the general election.
Yet as reports poured in about the historic number of Latinos lining up to vote early in Miami, I felt 100 percent certain that the state would remain blue. After all, Cuban-American members of Congress like Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had refused to endorse Trump.
In October, following the “Access Hollywood” scandal, Ros-Lehtinen called on Trump to withdraw from the campaign. When Hillary Clinton appeared at a Miami concert with Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, a stadium-size crowd showed up.
So when Florida turned red, I was stunned — especially after I saw the demographic breakdowns. Nearly one in three Latino voters in Florida cast their ballots for Trump.
According to a CNN and Latino Decisions exit poll, his support among Cuban-American voters was even higher: 54%. “Definitely there was a hidden, secret Latino vote,” Jorge Ramos, the Univision news anchor, told me.
“We’re seeing a new divide within the Hispanic community. The wall that Trump was talking about is clearly apparent now within the Hispanic community.”
This pro-Trump vote didn’t feel quite as secret to Roberto Rodríguez Tejera. Every day, he told me, people called into to his South Florida Spanish-language talk-radio show, “Contacto Directo,” to express their support for Trump. Rural white voters, he explained, aren’t the only ones frightened by the spectre of feminism, Muslim immigrants and L.G.B.T. rights.
“For many Hispanic Americans, the cultural changes of the past 15 years have been very hard. Trump, for many, is a return to the mother’s womb.” While a clear majority of the state’s Latinos cast their votes for Clinton, plenty of others responded to Trump’s hostility toward undocumented immigrants.
Every day “Contacto Directo” got versions of the same complaints from listeners: I waited so many years to be allowed to enter the United States; why should others get amnesty? I finally have my work permit; I don’t want an undocumented person to take my job for less money. “Maybe they’re even from the same country,” Rodríguez Tejera notes. Nationally, Pew Research Center reports that roughly a quarter of Hispanics favor building that big, beautiful wall.
According to Helen Marrow, a sociologist at Tufts University who specializes in Latino immigration to the rural South, people of similar ethnicity are the ones most likely to feel the negative impact of undocumented immigration.
Mexican or Central Americans who cross the border without papers are more likely to take jobs from their compatriots than from non-Hispanic whites. And when “racialised nativism” rears its head, Latino citizens and legal residents tend to suffer its effects — provoking some to adopt a strategy of ethnic “distancing.”
Some Florida Latinos who voted for Trump may have had other reasons entirely. Over the years, registered Latinos have told pollsters again and again that immigration is not their top concern. What they care about most are jobs, education, health care and terrorism.
In Florida, Obama’s recent changes to America’s relations with Cuba — changes that Clinton pledged to uphold — may have proved particularly toxic. On Nov. 2, The Miami Herald even predicted that Trump might take the state, because Obama’s Cuba policies “have probably pushed many undecided Cuban-Americans in Florida to vote for Trump.”
Trump had shrewdly taken advantage of this opening, promising to reinstate the embargo unless the Castro government guaranteed “religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.”
In October, the veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow the Castro regime, rewarded Trump by unanimously voting to give him their first presidential endorsement. One prominent Cuban-American in Florida told me that the Cuban vote for Trump wasn’t necessarily a pro-Trump or an anti-Clinton verdict.
It may have simply been anti-Castro. Members of Congress who opposed Trump and also opposed Obama’s Cuban strategy, like Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio, were re-elected by comfortable margins.
“What I think this makes clear is that the Cuban vote is even more important because it’s a swing vote,” the political consultant and pollster Fernand Amandi says. “It’s neither monolithically Republican or Democratic.”
In his own family, eight relatives voted for Obama in 2012; this year, five of them voted for Trump. But the reason Amandi gave me for their switch sounds rather more familiar: These relatives regarded Trump as “a hand grenade to a political system that they saw as being ineffective and out of touch.”
Marcela Valdes is a writer based in Maryland. She writes about Latino politics and culture.
On a cold, clear night in January 2008, when Iowa Democrats selected Barack Obama over a white woman and a white man in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, the moment felt transformative.
If voters in this overwhelmingly white, rural state could cast their ballots for a black man as president, then perhaps it was possible for the entire nation to do what had never been done; perhaps America had turned far enough away from its racist past that skin color was no longer a barrier to the highest office of the land.
In the months that followed, as Obama racked up primary victories, not just in the expected cities but also in largely white Rust Belt towns and farming communities, it seemed evidence for many Americans that the nation had finally become “post-racial.” Of course, that post-racial dream did not last long, and nothing epitomises the naïveté of that belief more than the election last week of Donald J. Trump.
As I watched my home state of Iowa join the red flood that overtook the electoral map last Tuesday, I asked myself the same questions that so many others did: What happened? Why had states that reliably backed Obama — states like Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — flipped Republican?
I was struck by how quickly white pundits sought to tamp down assertions that race had anything to do with it. It was, it seemed to me, almost a relief to many white Americans that Trump’s victory encompassed so many of the heavily white places that voted for a black man just years before.
It was an absolution that let them reassure themselves that Donald Trump’s raucous campaign hadn’t revealed an ugly racist rift after all, that in the end, the discontent that propelled the reality-TV star into the White House was one of class and economic anxiety, not racism.
But this analysis reveals less about the electorate than it does about the consistent inability of many white Americans to think about and understand the complex and often contradictory workings of race in this country, and to discuss and elucidate race in a sophisticated, nuanced way.
While we tend to talk about racism in absolute terms — you’re either racist or you’re not — racism and racial anxiety have always existed on a spectrum. For historians who have studied race in the United States, the change from blue to red in heavily white areas is not surprising. In fact, it was entirely predictable.
“There are times when working-class whites, whether rural or urban, will join an interracial alliance to get the short-term gains they want,” Robin Kelley, a history professor at U.C.L.A., told me. “They don’t ever do it without kicking and screaming.”
To understand how all these heavily white Iowa counties went for Obama, we must look back to 2008. After eight years of Republican rule, with the economy in a tailspin, white people were suffering through the sort of disastrous unemployment rates that usually only black Americans face.
It has been called the worst recession since the Great Depression. Obama’s message of hope, that Americans of all stripes were in this thing together, along with his promises to go after the banks and Wall Street types that had caused the disaster, struck a chord across political parties. And his savvy ground operation took this message to rural and suburban communities that Democrats had often written off as unwinnable.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the first black man to run for president (and second black American, behind Shirley Chisholm), made similar inroads with rural white farmers during his 1984 and 1988 campaigns. This was simply because he reached out to them promising to push policies that would specifically help them, like ending foreclosures on family farms and forgiving their debt. He did not get a majority of this vote, but he got a surprisingly significant portion.
Decades later, large numbers of rural and suburban white voters were willing to cast their lot with Obama and his multiracial coalition — not necessarily out of some sense of racial enlightenment or egalitarianism but because at the time, they saw it as being in their own best interest. Class and economic anxieties did not erase racial ones; they just in that moment transcended them.
Much has changed in the country since the desperate days of 2008, and while Obama carried more than half of Iowa’s 99 counties that year, last week Clinton only carried six.
I talked to several white Iowans, many of them lifelong Democrats, who had voted for Obama at least once. They said they believed in unions and social programmes to help the needy. They believed in the concept of racial equality, in the sense that all people should have the same opportunities.
But in recent years, they had come to feel at odds with their party; it no longer reflected their own cultural norms. Where once they were the backbone of the party, now they were outsiders.
Gretchen Douglas is a corrections officer from Marshalltown. The 53-year-old had been a Democrat her entire adult life and describes herself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative.
She’s a supporter of unions and gay rights and abortion rights and said she doesn’t want to breathe dirty air. She proudly talked of her daughter’s success as a chemist, mentioning that not long ago the only options for women were teaching and nursing. She holds a degree in accounting and can tell you exactly the share of the national debt she and her husband carry.
Even as the recession caused Iowa to shed hundreds of state jobs, Douglas managed to hold onto hers. But in 2012, for the first time in her life, she registered as a Republican, and last week she voted for Trump.
Douglas told me she had switched parties because she felt Obama had been irresponsible with spending, causing the national debt to soar. She said Democrats were spending too much on social programmes for people who did not need them.
“I don’t want to throw Granny out in the snow, and I think the least of our brothers should be taken care of,” she said.
“But I think that those who can work should.” Douglas said there was a time in her life where she was struggling, and so she applied for welfare for herself and her young children but was denied. She didn’t think that was fair, but she worked hard and turned her life around.
But these days, she said, “I kind of think for some social programmes there is no stigma.” Douglas never mentioned race, but polls including a recent one of Trump supporters have shown that white Americans’ support for entitlement programs declines if they think black people are benefiting. And the longer Douglas talked, the more she revealed other reasons she had voted for Trump.
When Obama was elected, she hoped he would “bridge race relations, to help people in the middle of Iowa” see that black people “are decent hardworking people who want the same things that we want.”
She said people in rural Iowa often don’t know many black people and unfairly stereotype them. But Obama really turned her off when after a vigilante killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, he said the boy could have been his son. She felt as if Obama was choosing a side in the racial divide, stirring up tensions. And then came the death of Michael Brown, shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo.
“I’m not saying that the struggles of black Americans aren’t real,” Douglas told me, “but I feel like the Michael Brown incident was violence against the police officer.”
The Black Lives Matter movement bothered her. Even as an Ivy League-educated, glamorous black couple lived in the White House, masses of black people were blocking highways and staging lie-ins in malls, claiming that black people had it so hard. When she voiced her discomfort with that movement, she said, or pointed out that she disagreed with Obama’s policies, some of her more liberal friends on Facebook would call her racist. So, she shut her mouth — and simmered.
Trump clearly sensed the fragility of the coalition that Obama put together — that the president’s support in heavily white areas was built not on racial egalitarianism but on a feeling of self-interest.
Many white Americans were no longer feeling that belonging to this coalition benefited them. A recent study by sociologists from Harvard and Tufts found that white Americans believed that they experienced more discrimination than black Americans. Trump spoke openly to those Americans, articulating what many Iowans felt but could never say. It was liberating.
“Trump was crass, and he was abrupt,” Douglas said. “But I felt like he was going to take care of the things that mattered for me, and honestly I was very worried about our country.”
There has never been a moment in America in which black people’s gains have not been perceived by some white Americans as their loss. And history is littered with examples of how economic and racial anxieties can create a wedge with which to destroy interracial political and economic alliances.
White supremacists overthrew the biracial fusion party in North Carolina in the late 1800s and, with the support of the white population in the state that had once supported the sharing of power, worked to disenfranchise black North Carolinians and usher in seven decades of Jim Crow.
In more modern times, George Wallace was roundly trounced when he ran for governor of Alabama against a racist opponent. Wallace, who had promised “to treat a man fair, regardless of his colour,” vowed to never be “out-niggered” again. The next election he rode a segregationist platform right into the governor’s mansion.
Similarly, Richard Nixon ran for president the first time as a moderate and lost, but he later found his opening courting white opposition to civil rights with his Southern strategy. It is not incidental that John McCain and Mitt Romney mostly declined to stir up racial tensions in their campaigns against Obama and lost.
When Trump inveighed against Mexican rapists and talked of barring Muslims from the country, the baldness of his rhetoric spoke to something deeply seated in the Iowans I talked to. Erin Wright, who worked for the state before quitting to finish a nursing degree, voted for Obama in 2008, and doesn’t remember if she voted at all in 2012; she cast her ballot for Trump last week. Like Douglas, she wasn’t struggling financially but was attracted to Trump’s promise to seal the southern borders and to bar Muslims from entering the country.
There’s a lot of illegal people here, who do take work,” she said. “If they want to become a citizen, that is super, they should become a citizen. But all the influx of people who come in, they get benefits, they get jobs, and they take them from people who can’t find anything else who have lived here their whole lives.”
What’s missing from the American conversation on race is the fact that people don’t have to hate black people or Muslims or Latinos to be uncomfortable with them, to be suspicious of them, to fear their ascension as an upheaval of the natural order of things.
A smart demagogue plays to those fears under the guise of economic anxieties. Things not as good as you hoped? These folks are the reason. Kelley, the historian, said white Americans have ignored race when it serves them and defaulted to it when it suits them. “We think of interest as an objective thing that floats above, but it is subjective,” he said. “Race always plays a role. It never disappears.” The miracle Obama worked in 2008 and 2012 was to stitch together, at least in part, the racial lines that have always fractured this country. What we saw last week was those lines being torn apart again.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for the New York Times magazine. She won a 2016 Peabody Award for her series on school segregation for “This American Life.”
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