Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dr. King, Donald Trump, And The South

The last few days have been very interesting in the Commonwealth of Virginia. On Saturday January 16th people attending celebratory events in Lexington, VA were greeted by Confederate flag wavers. Since the removal of the flag from South Carolina's state house the Stars and Bars has been ubiquitous in this part of the country. In addition to the gatherings on public and private property there was an unusual amount of traffic on the highways- not exactly a parade, but definitely a strong show of force.

On Sunday as my wife and I made our trip to the campus of Washington and Lee University to be part of the events, which featured a keynote lecture by Dr, Michael Eric Dyson, we saw an abundance of Confederate flags in places we hadn't seen them before. From a strictly phenomenological perspective, is there any ambiguity in the message being sent by people waving a Confederate flag at someone walking to a breakfast to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? I try to give our "heritage not hate" brothers a fair shake, but it's hard for me to come up with a motivation other than hatred for this kind of activity. I support their right to assemble, but it's hard for me to take your claims of heritage serious when you are jeering at people who lived through Jim Crow in southwest Virginia.

On Monday Donald Trump gave us the gift of 2Corinthians at a campaign rally disguised as a MLK convocation at Liberty University. Trump, the self crowned king of Protestantism, didn't just trip over the scripture; he read it in such a wooden and laconic way that demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the text. I went back and listened to the whole event, and it dawned on me that he might know more about Jesus than he does Dr. King. His time was filled with one recycled exhortation about greatness after another. He spent very little time talking about Dr. King. He stood in front of a conservative Christian audience and used the occasion to repeat his desire to grow the military; something that further distanced himself from the legacy of Dr. King. His religious faux pas, like his other transgressions, won't have any bearing on his support. We're at the point in the game where most people in our area have stopped pretending their support for him is based on the issues. 

Several weeks ago I went on a rant about the endorsement several prominent black pastors gave Donald Trump. I thought the endorsements flew in the face of what the black church, at its best, stood for. My criticism had nothing to do with his party or policies. I was upset that pastors could overlook the racial undertones, xenophobia, misogyny, and the overall vindictive rhetoric Donald Trump uses to dismiss his political opponents. I was upset that a legacy built by men and women with scarred backs and busted lips and noses was so easily co-opted. I was upset because men who claim to hold Dr. King in high esteem provided cover to a man who hasn't shown the ability to engage in civil discourse with anyone who disagrees with him. Donald Trump speaks worse about his political opponents than Dr. King spoke about the people who were trying to kill him. Pastors are people, and people compromise their beliefs, principles, and even the institutions they govern for wealth, prestige, and power, yet it hurt me to see the legacy of the black church traded so freely. 

The issues beneath the surface of the Trump phenomenon affect me. I'm more interested in understanding the kind of person who supports Trump than understanding Trump himself. I live in a community where often times I’m the only black man in a restaurant, sporting event, or church service- depending on denomination. When you're a black man in a community like this there's no hiding from race. There’s no amount of denial that can change the reality you find yourself in. People who only know me through my writing think I’m obsessed with race, but the reality is: I can't escape it. The election of a black man didn't improve the quality of life for black people in the south; not because there was some legislative omission or failure, but because while it symbolically lifted the spirits of blacks it simultaneously knocked another layer of armor off the myth of white supremacy, and sadly for too many in this area the myth of superiority is all they have left.  I've been told that racism was over, but Barack Obama made things worse. Somehow his two electoral landslides reminded people they didn't like blacks. This was always a disingenuous and elementary argument. I feel the heat from the rhetoric and blatantly racist attacks on him, his wife, and their kids. The Stars and Bars, nooses, and other relics of America’s dark ages are common place in this part of the world.  

I can't wait til the south's dream of taking their country back comes true. Instead of focusing on that which truly unites us we dissect the culture we share, and use our language to form words we can use as weapons against each other. Until we come to grips with the legacy of racism in America, and the systematic way racist policies have destroyed the bodies of black people, and the minds of white people we'll never appreciate the beauty of Dr. King's dream. I'm not attempting to hold anyone more accountable for the country we inherited. If we're serious about driving racism out of public life we need people willing to address it head on. Refusing to acknowledge race isn't a cure for racism. After President Obama last days in office are over we, in the south, will return to our corners where we will cast our distrusting gazes upon each other, we will fake smiles and engage in the kind of chit chat designed to make uncomfortable situations tolerable. We will do this because that's what we do. We will do this because it's what passes for civility.