The other day as my son and I walked to his school, he began riffing — as 5 year-olds are wont to do — on the wonder of the police. As most kids do at some point, he has developed an interest in uniformed public servants. The police interest him especially because of the proximity of authority and their mandate to do good. “The police protect us from bad guys daddy! They’re like superheroes.”
No, they are not like superheroes. I see that because I’m paying attention.
As I tried to figure out an honest response to keep my son attentive, but not so dispiriting a response to put a premature end to his childhood innocence, I got to thinking. Not about the overwhelming instances of racial violence perpetrated by the police. Rather, I got to thinking about the contentious, controversial, and in some circles of decent thinking, openly reviled Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump. Why? It occurred to me that despite the numerous stories of unarmed blacks killed by police on America’s streets that have made national headlines, the sometimes-yawning distance between race and justice is a lesson many white Americans have yet to fully comprehend. And as I thought about why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Baldwin-inspired riff on white Americans being America’s Dreamers came to mind. And, then, another thought — maybe, if Donald Trump does one good thing in the entirety of his life it is that he might be forcing everyone to wake up, that he might be putting an end to American dreaming. This would almost certainly be dangerous in the short-term as many of America’s worst elements have begun to feel empowered to more vociferously voice their racial hatreds. But what might it mean for America’s future that its most privileged population can no longer ignore that a man whose candidacy depends almost entirely on racial hate alongside misogyny today is the voice of one of America’s major political parties?
What is ‘the dream’? For Coates, as it was for Baldwin, it is a racial state of mind — a white state of mind — wherein America is a land of fairness and realistic paths to prosperity, a land where liberty is liberty and justice is justice so no one needs to fear for his or her well-being when doing mundane things like walking through a housing community or having car trouble on the highway. The dream is a white racial outlook that takes for granted that the law is stable and reliable and that fellow Americans are prepared to respect one another’s standing as Americans.
It’s a fabulous place, and as Zora Neale Hurston once quipped about American democracy, I sure would like to try some of the stuff out. The problem is, this place only exists in the minds of a portion of the American population, mostly whites. And this propensity to accept this narrative of our nation, to take it as settled that if anyone’s life exposes evidence that America is often anything but fair and safe that it must be the fault of the person who is suffering, that makes whites the Dreamers. But as Coates tells his son, there is a real cost to this dreaming: “for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from out bodies.” Coates concludes, “The dream persists by warring with the known world.” Enter Donald Trump.
The Dream mostly only works when the slumbering are so deep under that the screams and shouts of those awakened (think here of the political consciousness lingo in black activism, “get woke”) cannot penetrate the layers of unreality. But it is rare when someone among the Dreamers acts in a manner that peels back the façade and illusion that allows us to act as if race is not a real problem.
For example, in the past, when Republicans have exerted more creative tactics to impact elections, the strategy was to gerrymander voting districts. In the 2000 Presidential election that George W. Bush won by a razors edge in Florida, it is now widely known that police set up check points outside of polls that had the unstated intention but real-world effect of suppressing black voter turnout. This allowed many whites to continue dreaming that blacks’ legal right to vote is the same thing as the right to actually vote. But in 2016, Trump has done away with pretense. In recent days, as polls indicate that he is in for a blistering defeat by Hillary Clinton, he has bizarrely claimed that if he loses it won’t be because of the fact that his knowledge of policy is less than that of a graduate student in a Public Policy program, or because he has equated the entirety of one of the world’s oldest religions with terrorism, or that he has admitted to sexually assaulting women. No, Trump has concluded that if he loses it will be because it will be stolen. By who? Blacks. As reported in The New York Times, during a recent and maybe ironic campaign stop in Florida, Trump had this to say to voters: “So important that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us[.]” Later, in Pennsylvania, a state in which it is apparently legal for any registered voter to demand identification from a person trying to vote at the polls, Trump went full Dixie: “I just hear such reports about Philadelphia… I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us.” Though after the Republican presidential candidate declared that he will build a wall between us and Mexico, calling to mind Cold War imagery, and though he has proposed a ban on Muslim immigration, and though he insisted until the final moment that Barack Obama was not American, Trump’s latest gambit to suppress the black vote is not surprising, it is deeply important. Because he didn’t wait for a policy to do it while no one said it; he said it, and is hoping to bypass policies and institutions and activate his basket of supporters in an effort to initiate racial intimidation. And we’re all watching him do it. The dog whistles are gone.
So, are we “woke?” A small portion of the population is, but in a most disagreeable way. We are getting increasingly clear pictures of the white nationalist groups that have lined up behind Trump. They see with great clarity, thus proclaim with great confidence that Trump is the candidate of white interests. Just this past weekend, three members of The Crusaders, were caught with materiel and plans to bomb an apartment building in Kansas housing mostly Somali Muslims. Their goal? To “wake everyone up.” And what was Trump’s response to this great outpouring of odious support and attempted terror? Silence, and thereby, acceptance. The rest of us are being “woke” in different ways. The Republican establishment that has for decades engaged in coded Willie Horton super-predator politics finds itself embarrassingly exposed for their long-standing willingness to continue to build America, as Coates says, on blacks’ backs and bodies. Liberal whites for their part express some mixture of shock and indignation. The crucial and important question remains are they shocked and indignant about the right kinds of things? Surely, many are. Surely, many are not – not yet. A subset have found their comfortable reality in which the criminals are criminals, the police are the police, where hard work pays off, and laziness leads to welfare so what are arguing about, punctured. They see on television and hear on their NPR stream a man who represents a party that is telling us, without ambiguity, using a formulation even Bull Connor had matured past, that “the” African-Americans live in hell. This is not true, though the nightmare can be hellish: the bodies, the exculpations, the poverty, the uncooperative educational system, the lopsided healthcare, and the presidential candidate. We would like to get to dream, too. But I think we would prefer for everyone to get and stay woke so we can get on about the work of making America great.
Which brings me back to my morning walk with my boy. There are things I need him to understand that he cannot take for granted. And there are things I want him to take for granted though without having to necessarily understand. I want him to take for granted that there is no better system of political rule than liberal democracy, this nation’s aspirational tradition. But I need him to understand the difference between aspiration and actuality, the difference between the dream of heroes and the reality of tragic conflict. He needs to get through life not only with his eyes open, but with his consciousness awake and ready to act on what he understands in service to what he dreams in this nation that is still in the making.