Despair Is Not an Option

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Graduate members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity pray during a social action prayer vigil across the street from the Jefferson Davis monument in New Orleans, prior to its removal. 

This article is a preview of the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Devotees of racial justice continue to be appalled by the Trump administration. Heather Heyer, the anti-racist demonstrator murdered in Charlottesville, was right: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

A great many Americans, especially African Americans, are in a mood of despair upon witnessing a president of the United States winking at neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klansmen, and doing everything in his power to expunge the achievements of his predecessor, a man who came to be known less for his race than for his decency, dignity, and honor.

Yet despair is not an option. And in fact, good people of all races are putting their anger to good use through activism on the ground. Sometimes, though, their efforts are taken for granted and receive too little praise even within their own camp.

Far too little notice, for example, was given to the remarkable May 19 speech by Mayor Mitch Landrieu explaining the decision of the New Orleans municipal government to remove from places of public honor three monuments celebrating Confederate generals and one celebrating the violent overthrow of the state’s multiracial Reconstruction government. To prevail, Landrieu and his allies had to overcome a fervent and well-organized opposition. But prevail they did with a campaign that was punctuated by a speech that belongs in anthologies of great American oratory.

I know of no speech on racial conflict and reconciliation by an elected official that is more candid, more inspiring, more soulful. New Orleans, he observed, “was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold, and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, of torture.”

Answering oft-heard apologies for Confederate “heroes,” Landrieu observed that “these men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it. They may have been warriors but in this cause they were not patriots.” The monuments, Landrieu declared, “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Landrieu praised black leaders and colleagues for prompting him to see a problem he had previously unwittingly ignored, confessing, “I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.”

He also acknowledged the educative power of trying to see things from another’s viewpoint, recalling that a friend asked him to consider the monuments from “the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? … Do these monuments help her to see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?”

Answering charges of racial pandering, Landrieu maintained that reformers were simply engaged in “righting the wrong images these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations.” Contrasting the movement to remove the iconography as against that which established it, Landrieu declared: “Unlike when those Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land, we all come to the table of democracy as equals.”

The spirit of Landrieu’s speech is, thankfully, more widespread than is often recognized by observers whose understandable disgust with Trumpism misleads them into underestimating the growing anti-racist opposition. Folks numbering in the millions and of all complexions are self-consciously engaging in countless acts of protest: marching, organizing study groups, volunteering legal expertise, donating money to institutions dedicated to the preservation of threatened values—the NAACP, the ACLU, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice—and resolving in numberless diverse ways to become more active, informed, influential.

This outpouring of indignation, alarm, and affirmation should not be taken for granted. It should be recognized and encouraged. It reflects underestimated stores of idealism and compassion. These sorts of grassroots interventions alone are insufficient to turn the tide. That will require ongoing, organized political mobilizations that can win elections at every level—local, statewide, and national. But even modest, episodic acts of protest are worth heralding. They provide essential sustenance in this harsh season in which meanness and chauvinism are riding all too high.

Liberals ought to be realists. They should eschew spurious sentimentality. They should certainly avoid denying the presence of bigotry and indifference to suffering—ugly features of our political culture that are all too evident. Realism, however, entails attentiveness to strengths as well as weaknesses, an appreciation of progress as well as stagnation or retrogression.

I had thought that sufficient racial progress had been made in the United States to preclude the successful candidacy of someone like Trump who openly—openly!—traffics in racial and other sorts of prejudice. I was obviously wrong. The country has not progressed as much as I thought that it had.

That does not mean, however, that there has been no progress. To the contrary, in many spheres—not all, but many—there has been dramatic change for the better. This is what makes Trump’s victory so disappointing. But disappointment—the hurt experienced upon witnessing a failure to meet expectations—is better than the sulky, despairing “What do you expect from white folks?” attitude that one encounters in some quarters.

After all, the American electorate did twice elect a liberal black man to the presidency. That should provide a source of encouragement and a basis for believing that progressive change, albeit fragmentary and difficult to hold, can nonetheless be attained through continued struggle. I am well aware that Obama never won a majority of white voters. I am aware, too, that his elections clearly unleashed a whirlwind of racist derangement. But twice, a sufficient number of whites joined an aroused electorate of people of color to carry Obama into the White House.

The Trump camp wants to vilify or obliterate the memory of those exhilarating events. Liberals should cherish those victories and the intelligent, dignified, compassionate, presidential stewardship that followed. I am not urging anyone to forgo criticizing the Obama presidency or the ruthless opposition to it. I am urging observers to acknowledge that, viewed against the backdrop of American history, the Obama ascendancy was a major step forward on a path that has been and will continue to be strewn with impediments which, to be overcome, will require all sorts of fancy footwork, including steps sideways.

Liberals must, of course, avoid underestimating the popularity and resourcefulness of the Trump forces (as was done so negligently in 2016). But it is also important to avoid overestimating their support and thus their mandate. Trump won the White House but with only a minority of the electorate. Do not forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by at least two million ballots. This is clearly a sore point with Trump, which is why he persists in making the laughable claim that he won the majority of legitimate ballots cast. Not only did he come into office with barely a razor-thin victory, but since taking power he has been losing support.

The prestige of the presidency usually attracts voters. Trump has been alienating them with, among other things, his abhorrent racial sallies. In the urge to curse out the army of voters that continues to back Trump, liberals ought to avoid exaggerating its number or giving up on its susceptibility, over time, to persuasion.

The Trump presidency is an alarming, appalling disgrace. It will be destructive, sometimes in ways that will be irremediable. But it does not constitute the end of the story. Racial liberalism can overcome racial reaction. Progress is by no means inevitable. But under the sway of intelligent, brave, ethical, and persistent collective struggle, continued racial progress is surely possible.

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