The personal and systemic become one again…thanks Donny!

I wish that I could say that growing up, I knew that I wanted to fight racial injustice, but that would be a lie. If someone had told me that by my mid-40s I would be gaining a reputation as a “race relations” expert, that would have been downright comical to me. My childhood dreams were pretty standard-issue (actor and/or lawyer) and my early career was spent working with the economically disadvantaged, no doubt a nod to how I had been raised and knowing the difference that one person could make.

Circumstances and rage brought me to this point in my life and, while it is an honor to be recognized for this racial equity work, it is also at times a burden because once you open the door and see just how race factors into every existing system in this country…well, it becomes hard to turn it off. Ever.

Which is one reason why I have tried to avoid talking at length about the 2016 presidential election.

I will start by saying that for the first time in my adult life, I understand why people sometimes just don’t vote. You want to believe in hope and change, but the reality is that one person is not going to magically make it better for all. Instead, you realize that the middle…those places filled with shades of gray…is where most of life is lived. At that point, you look for the brightest spots in that gray. Or at least many of us do.

However, after watching the first presidential debate a few nights ago, it has become abundantly clear to me that while one person may not be able to magically make it great for all, one person can (and has already) started to make it terribly uncomfortable for many, even dangerous. In the past year or so, we have seen the tide of civility and pretense change in the United States. The ugliness that so many once thought was a relic of the past has become chic again and no matter who becomes the nation’s next president, as I have said before, we aren’t closing that door again. Racism is right back out in the open for a great many Americans, and they are happy to express that racism.

Donald Trump, in my humble opinion, is not qualified to be a dog catcher, much less the “leader of the free world.” His thoughts are disorganized, he has no intellectual (or policy) curiosity, he is crude and cruel, he is bombastic and he is bravado on steroids. Ans yet he appeals to almost half of America if the polls are any indicator. Trump’s platform is “making America great again,” which at this point goes beyond dog-whistle politics. Trump is appealing to a demographic who longs for the days when the women, the queers and/or the non-whites “knew their places” and that place was under the thumbs of able-bodied, Christian, heterosexual, cisgendered white men.

Even more disturbing is Trump’s use of stereotypes during this campaign season in his attempt to reach out to minority communities. Trump keeps reiterating that Blacks and Latinos are all living in Hell with no jobs, bad schools and astronomical crime. Trump most certainly isn’t speaking to any Blacks or Latinos that I know. Yes, there are minority communities that are struggling and many in the darker-hued middle class are far less solidly placed than white people, but in almost all instances you can see how systemic inequity created those situations.  Even Trump’s trotting out of my beloved hometown of Chicago is offensive, and given that Trump dodged questions related to race with responses such as “Law and Order” and “Stop and Frisk” (otherwise known as legally sanctioned racial profiling), the idea of a Trump presidency scares me enough to seriously ponder how fast can I save my pennies and start my retirement in Belize ahead of schedule.

It is easy to downplay Trump’s rise by saying he was up against a batch of weak characters during the primaries but that would be a lie. Trump himself is weaker in every way that matters for a president than the least of the GOP candidates he faced off against. We are here because people like what Trump is saying or, better put, they like what Trump is selling. Period. Yeah, the turnout may have been low during the primaries but we are here because people liked what he was selling and many are fed up with the status quo and figure any change is good change. I suppose it is easy to feel that way when it won’t be your children who are already at risk whose risk of state-sponsored violence will almost certainly increase under a Trump presidency.

Xenophobia, racism and outright hatred are on the rise and it’s not just because social media emboldens us to talk about the previously taboo. It’s because somewhere along the line, we as a collective decided to stop even pretending and decided to just let our inner ugly hang out, sort of like how after the second serving of Thanksgiving dinner you just have to unfasten your pants because you can’t hold that gut in any longer.

The so-called melting pot that really all along had been a tossed salad has now morphed into that pot of nasty when it’s left on the stove too long, and burning odor is growing stronger. Just this morning, I heard a piece on NPR that, despite knowing the fact already, still broke my heart. Implicit bias starts as young as preschool. In plain talk, it means preschool teachers walk into classrooms and decide who the troublemakers are and more often than not the troublemaker wears Black skin even when the white kids are the bigger troublemakers. Yet no matter how many times folks like me say this or studies confirm these uncomfortable realities, too many refuse to see that reality. Is it any wonder that Black and Brown people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system? Where Chad gets a break for youthful indiscretions, Jamal gets a record that starts early and marks him for life.

Systemic racism has never gone out of style but now that personal racism is starting to flourish again, and with the likes of Trump running around, I don’t see any end in sight.  But I will say that if racial justice is important to you, the decisions you make or don’t make this November do matter.
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