By January 2016 I had made peace with the idea of a President Donald Trump.
It was a strange statement for a black woman, a sociologist, a professor. I would go on to consult for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the primary. I had written an essay for a mainstream anthology about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brand of feminism. It wasn’t a secret that I was unsettled by how the Democratic party wanted to approach this election.
Still, it was a strange notion to confess to in public, which is exactly how I did it:
but it's important, I think, that we know that we always have in us the impulse to elect a President Trump. Always. https://t.co/TIm7VoVvDi
— Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) January 28, 2016
Professionally smart people were still very dismissive of any idea that Trump could win the primary, much less the presidency.
Then Trump won the nomination.
Professionally smart people then told us about how polls work and about political theory. The United States of America couldn’t elect Trump. We weren’t that nation anymore.
I have been black a long time and I have been southern for about as long. I’m talking at least one lifetime if you don’t count the culture trapped in my bones, inherited from my people.
I am trained a social scientist. I know how polls work, much to the chagrin of the professionally smart men who sneered at me when I said this nation could absolutely elect Donald Trump.
To be professionally smart is to concede always to rational science, to polls and confidence intervals. These colleagues, the professionally smart, seemed dismayed that the black woman they’d been brave enough to think smart could believe a President Trump was possible.
They were dismayed but not surprised. Women and black people always have a potential blind spot where race and gender are concerned. It is why we’re so emotional and irrational. We just cannot see past our unscientific claims of racism and sexism to be truly professionally smart. Our models, in the parlance of the professionally smart, are always just a bit skewed.
It’s a shame, too. Because the professionally smart really want evidence that their faith in affirmative action for smart minorities is well-placed. It is a shame with a black woman has as much potential as me and still can’t see past that racial blind spot.
My blind spot was, of course, perfect clarity about how whiteness and racism work.
It is a difficult thing to measure in polls. That’s why there is still great value in systematic collection and analysis of how people experience the world and not just how they tell you they experience the world.
People told pollsters that they were undecided or that they weren’t sure if they would vote. People told themselves that they were rational and not victims to blind spots or identity politics. People told themselves and told us that this is not the nation that could elect a liar and a cheater and a bully and an ingrate and a white nationalist President of the United States of America.
But people went to Donald Trump rallies.
I know because I went to one, too.
I didn’t just ask people why they were there. I paid attention to how they were there. Did they bring their children? How did they comport themselves? How were they dressed? What cars filled the parking lots? What were the side conversations in stairways and lines for the bathroom?
At the Donald Trump rally I heard white women swoon at the thought of catching his eye from the stage. Women in their fifties giggled like school girls over how sexy he is. Young but infirm white men and women on crutches and in hoverrounds and walkers with the little wheels on the back legs screamed about how Obamacare was ruining America.
And black men sat silently in corners, nodding almost imperceptibly when he talked about trade. South Asian and east Asian groups for Trump littered the hall with signs and t-shirts showing their support. Young people cheered when Trump said he would arrest Hillary and cage in the inner cities, wearing jerseys fresh from or to some sporting practice.
This was America and I knew it was because for me it always has been.
Johnathan Chait once chided Ta-Nehisi Coates for his hopelessness. If there is a more persistent demand of the marginalized and oppressed than that they perform hope for their benefactors, it is difficult to find it. We have, of course, a nomenclature problem. When white allies want us to be hopeful what they really mean is that they require absolution in exchange for their sympathies. And, when black people say that they are plenty hopeful we tend to mean that our hope is tempered by a deep awareness of how thin is the veneer of white civility. Our grudging acceptance that progress and diversity are fragile bits of spun glass looks like hopelessness because it doesn’t absolve. But, it is the most enduring kind of hope and it is the hope that President-elect Donald Trump will require of us all if we’re to organize and resist.
Professionally smart people who claim to know our collective heart really like straight lines. First, there was the enlightenment and then some unfortunate business about colonialism and black ocean bottoms. Then there was freedom and the Great Society and smartphones and the browning of America.
The straight line requires a lot of erasers.
Sociologist Karen Fields and historian Barbara Fields have this wonderful analytical concept called racecraft. I like it a lot for many reasons. Chief among them is the clear articulation about how rational hopelessness is and how radically necessary it is to any kind of progress for a society so embedded in racial hierarchies as is ours.
Racecraft is the great story about what race is and what it can never be for race to persist as a powerful social category. Racecraft is the debate about whether Trump voters acted out of partisanship or economic anxiety, out of sexism or racism because plain old racism is simply too blunt a tool to explain such complex social behavior. Mind you, partisanship literally means just voting like lots of other people vote out of loyalty. Racism, in contrast, is a cohesive analytical framework that accounts for the complex ways that identities and ideologies shift over time. One of those concepts is as complex as the phenomenon in question but only one is dismissed outright as foolish. When racecraft is the prevailing responsibility of professional smart people and erasers and line drawers, these kind of inconsistencies don’t matter.
Racecraft necessitates that facts and truth, as Mark Zuckerberg intoned this week when Facebook was indicted for facilitating the spread of fake news stories, are always fundamentally unknowable. Philosophically, of course, there is a debate about whether there is any such thing as “truth” but politically there is no doubt that there is an agreed upon idea of what constitutes a fact. A social fact, even, as sociologists often call it. How ironic for the great narrative emerging from this election to be so fastidiously addicted to “fake news” that may or may not have swayed the election given how racecraft has shaped the political fabric of this nation, eating truth whenever convenient to make sure that fabric only ever secured white freedoms.
Racecraft tells us that any truth, any fact can be dispensed with when it doesn’t support the straight line. Racecraft has to allow for science that refutes the existence of races while also proving that there is such thing as races. Racecraft is a nation’s split personality that must have a measurement device for popular opinions while discounting one of the single greatest predictors of popular opinion. Racecraft is how the only folks who see things clearly can be the ones accused of having a blind spot.
That is why professionally smart people require all members to the club have irrational, exuberant hope. But, the black members have to have the most irrational and exuberant and performative hope. We cannot just scream “yes we can!” We have to scream it even when it is clear that we cannot and no, we will not and no, we are not. We have to pay this tax to the professionally smart because our blind spot is so discomfiting. We come with the baggage of lived experience of racism.
You hear it already, the calls for liberals and democrats to get back to hope as quickly and efficiently as possible. The call is loudest and most pointed when aimed at the black voters and the women voters, god help us, the black women voters. They cannot be bothered right now with our casual hopelessness that has always already lived with the dystopia promised by a President Trump. Everything from reversing Roe v. Wade and police surveillance to mob rule in public discourse and delegitimized claims to citizenship have been true for us for a long time.
The America many professionally smart people woke up to last week is the America many of us have already lived in for at least as long as this memory shut up in my bones.
The irony is that despite our hopelessness, black voters worked overtime to defeat Trump. We did this despite having more barriers to voting than almost any other part of the electorate: gerrymandering, voter ID laws, time constraints, and voter intimidation. Just like we have always showed up. We have showed up to free ourselves, to free the immigrant others who came after us, to perfect this union against its will, and to make democracy great one day.
My hopelessness isn’t nihilism just like my blind spot has always seen clearly the limits of American progress.
My hopelessness is faith in things yet seen and works yet done. Hopelessness is necessary for the hard work of resisting tyranny and fascism. It is the precondition for sustained social movements because history isn’t a straight line. It is a spinning top that eventually moves forward but also always goes round and round as it does. Those erasers applied post-mortem confuse us to this, blind us to the defeats that will come and ill prepare us for the reality that most of what we believe in will not come to pass in our lifetimes. A transactional hope is anathema to social progress.
I knew this America could elect a President Trump. It is precisely because I always knew it, bone deep, that I worked so hard to stop it.
It’s why the work never stopped.
For some of us it never has.