August 2008, College Station, Texas. My first semester of college.
Texas A&M University, like any other American campus at the time, was on fire with political discourse. Most of the discussion on this particular campus was far from what might be considered liberal, or even progressive. This was not in the least bit shocking. After all, I was in Texas and our nation faced the very real possibility of electing a black president.
I feel I must pause now to say that I love my alma mater. I am a Fightin’ Texas Aggie. This entitles me to membership in one of the world’s most well connected and far reaching fraternities. The Aggie network. I also love my home state. To quote Peggy Hill, “I am a citizen of the Republic of Texas.” This love however, does not blur perception, nor detract from my understanding of the unfortunate racial history of both Texas A&M and Texas as a whole. Only two other states (GA, MS) are responsible for more lynchings during the years of 1882-1968. And no other state played a larger role in the systematic, and legal, lynching of Latinos. Texas A&M did not admit it’s first black student for almost a century after its establishment, and, only then, under the pressure of lawsuits and the intensifying civil rights movement. But that was then. And this was 2008. There were no cross burnings, no hate crimes. Mostly, what I witnessed was passive and casual racism. “NoBama” and “Come and Take It” were the most popular shirts on campus. This was a type of racism that isn’t; on the surface. The kind you grow up with in Texas in the 21st century. A shade of bigotry that feels at once covert and blatant. Like growing up and realizing that the N-Word and Wetback were words you heard far too often for comfort in a white suburb. And worse, that you didn’t think much of them at the time. After all, your friends can’t be racists if they’re friends with you, right?
Post civil rights racism lingers like a half-dead virus in the bloodstream of the south. Decades of progress since the early sixties have seemingly cured our nation of it’s past bigotry. But one must always look beneath the surface to find truth. The election of Barack Obama was a catalyst that began the gradual uncovering of old sentiments. What began as quiet discontent grew slowly louder. The once whispered grumblings of Anglo-conservatives became the angry mobs of white supremacists screaming “make America great again” as they brandished Nazi salutes.
Malcolm Gladwell might describe the resurgence of racism in America as a result of moral licensing following the election of Barack Obama. His theory of Tokenism states that when an individual from a historically marginalized population is promoted within a system , the result is not the opening of doors but the closing of them. That the individual satisfies some minimum ‘quota’ of correctness for the system or organization and is used to justify future discrimination. By allowing Barack Obama to be elected president, America excused future acts of bigotry. Such as, electing a successor that led a campaign based significantly on discriminating ideologies. This is not to say that Obama’s presidency was a misstep in the march of social justice. Nor does the Tokenism theory in any way diminish the enormity of his accomplishments. Rather, my interpretation of the theory, in this case, is that our nation practiced moral licensing as a reaction in hindsight, rather than as a strategic agenda. Closeted racists and casual xenophobes have spent the past eight years growing in their brashness because in their eyes, this is not the America of the 1960’s, where white oppression of minorities is openly practiced. Rather, this is Obama’s America; one in which white men feel themselves to be marginalized, perhaps even excluded from the zeitgeist. It was this shift in our collective consciousness that breathed new life into old racism.
One man took advantage of this moment in a way that only someone who has made a career out of the demise of others can do. Donald J. Trump leveraged the bubbling racial tension in white America to con his way into the oval office. And he did so blatantly and unapologetically. Using a mixture of white-first rhetoric, the promise of ethnic cleansing, and economic isolationism, he preyed on the fears of a largely uneducated and unskilled constituency. One that has seen its job market exported to the developing world or lost to obsolescence. That has watched its president turn black, as its own whiteness grows more and more irrelevant.
The argument could be made that the DNC is as much responsible for the election of Donald Trump as any other group or social factor. That their gross corruption in the manipulation of a democratic election helped to match Trump against the most disliked presidential candidate in history. One could also argue that the Republican Party, in its attempt to align itself with the Christian Right and focus on destabilizing their own government, fractured not only their party, but their voter base. That this internal collapse facilitated Donald’s successful coup. In these arguments we find some truth and much blame. In the end, no one organization, no one catalyst led us to where we are today. However, we must not fail to acknowledge the role of bigotry and xenophobia in the result of our presidential election. And we must chose to take political and organized action against the threat of the Alt-Right. It is the responsibility of progressive, intelligent and empathetic citizens to do so. Fortunately, this threat is being faced with an opposition equally steadfast and ferocious. Just one month ago, in no place other than Texas A&M University, students and citizens took to the streets to protest and disrupt the visit of white supremacist leader Richard Spencer (a visit that was privately funded and in no way associated with the university). I have never been more proud to call myself an Aggie. We may be facing four years of hate speech and proud bigotry from our White House, but we will not be undone as a nation. Donald Trump does not represent America nor its principles. He will not tarnish our character, but will, in the end, be defeated by it.