Three months ago, Americans voted in their presidential election. It was to be an event that would showcase the strength of American democracy and the triumph of American ideals. However, in an unanticipated upset, the country’s white majority trumped the wider diversity of the electorate to enshrine Donald Trump into the presidency. Electing Mr. Trump was, in some ways, the coming-out party of the economic anxieties of the country’s working and middle classes, and it also exposed the racial fault lines that exist between America’s white majority and its racial minorities. The economically marginalized, whether black, white or brown, are reeling from a recovered economy that left them behind.
Appearing on the cusp of this reality is Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement against police brutality that is doubly racial and economic: it protests mass incarceration and disfranchisement, police brutality and public health crises, and achievement gaps in education and widespread poverty. When further diagnosed, inner-city and at-risk youths become euphemisms for “African-American” and “urban,” as the terms “Appalachia,” the “Plain,” and the “Heartland” have equally served to refer to the rural white heartland. For the latter, de-industrialization has meant that white privilege is among the last vestiges of status. Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Flint are, in many ways, no different than the tribulations of the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana, Indianapolis, and Reading, Pennsylvania. However, this similarity is fractured by a divergence in historical (mis)interpretations of who or what underpin the failures of America.
To gauge this divergence, reflect for a moment on Langston Hughes‘s question: What happens to an American dream deferred? Seldom will the response to this question generate a precise answer from African-Americans. Black Americans have been on a continuing albeit elusive quest to pursue the American dream. The Civil Rights movement created a successful but precarious black middle class. Hence, whatever lens you take, the glass is either half-full or half-empty since Dr. King announced his dream for a nation of equals. Pose the same question to supporters of President Trump, and one gets an image of a nation that has always been great—a land for the free and of boundless opportunities. According to this narrative, ours is a country of refuge for Europe’s tired, its poor and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Meanwhile, some African-Americans, like Malcolm X, have noted, whether in bondage or in freedom, blacks have often been fugitives from American oppression, not running to its shores for freedom. As he put it, North or South of the Mason-Dixon Line is a geographical farce; South of Canada was still South of freedom.
The story of American freedom and racism is, in this sense, a twinned legacy of a dual consciousness: on one side is the story of Euro-America, of building the proverbial city on a hill, one that cast its light throughout the land of dispossessed Native Americans and towards a manifested destiny, looking towards the darker people of the Pacific. On the other side are African-Americans, who were often the casualty of Manifest Destiny, not its beneficiaries. These two narratives stand in contradistinction: while the white working-class pin their hopes on the populism of a northeastern, Ivy League-educated real-estate billionaire, many African-Americans, especially the younger generation, struggle to unpin their freedom hopes from the Democratic Party, which, to them, has failed to deliver on the American gospel of prosperity.
Neither side is wrong, of course, to hold two different interpretations of America. In hindsight, many whites have had the inherited privilege of being born white, a racial-historical affirmative action that made America exceptional—hard work paid off for many generations of Euro-Americans. The nostalgia for a bygone era is not unfounded in this sense. Many Blacks, on the other hand, experienced a side of America where the dream realized for whites was a dream deferred for many in their communities. In spite of this, it is remarkable that no one group has been more systematically wronged by America, but insists on realizing its promise, as have African-Americans.
These narratives are a sign of our time and are somewhat reflected in the popularity of television shows like the FX channel’s “The People vs. O.J Simpson,” which aired during the presidential campaign. The show simulates the racial schism of black and white America, providing a psychotherapeutic muse on two different racial versions of justice. Replaying the trial is thus national fodder for the catharsis of an America at war with itself, as is apparent in today’s political climate. In the pushback against BLM and among the followers of Donald Trump, one could sense that BLM is confronted with a counter-protest tradition—what Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker called White Lives Matter (WLM). WLM represents a constituency dogged by economic marginalization, drug-related problems, and increasing mortality rates—crises that were essentialized as black pathologies but had always existed among the so-called “white trash.” In spite of the racial undertones, the grievances of WLM cannot be dismissed.
Consequently, the election season was a display in the misprision of facts. As Henry Louis Gates once observed about the O.J. Simpson case two decades ago, “How can conversation begin when we disagree about reality? To put it at its harshest, for many whites a sincere belief in Simpson’s innocence looks less like the culture of protest than like the culture of psychosis.” Those African-Americans who cheered Mr. Simpson’s acquittal perhaps believed it vindicated their humanity. O.J. Simpson personifies overcoming racist justice. Simpson’s moral culpability aside, he became a man who happens to be black rather than a black man convicted for having been born as such. This is the nadir of reimagining the landscape of American politics; it unveils the ugly character of an unforgivingly racist system. For many whites, regardless of its historical roots, that perspective is flawed, a dismissal of the historical construction of blackness as predicated on criminality.
So each side, black and white, holds different versions of America, of its promise and its ideals, its failures and its progress, its hopes and despair. Given President Trump’s rhetoric and his embrace by a cadre of white Americans, his presidential tenure will likely be a contest over the economic-racial fault lines of America, past and present. There will, of course, be calls for a truce between these opposing narratives, but the battle lines of interpretations have already been drawn and they will carry on through the next four years.
Westenley Alcenat is a scholar, teacher, and academic consultant. His primary focus is the African American protest tradition, political and intellectual thought in the nineteenth century, and the Haitian Revolution’s legacy and influence on Black American radicalism. He teaches United States, Atlantic, and Afro-Caribbean history at Fordham University in the Bronx.