Finding Hope in a Loveless Place

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:




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.

68 thoughts on “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place

    1. Hi Sinclair Lewis… I realize you are asking Tressie about this, but anyhow, the tribes from all over have expressed gratitude for the help of the different allies. Altho they are called “the water protectors” it should be made clear that they are fighting for Indian rights. They have asked not to have their voices usurped by the celebrities, the white feminists and the climate change activists, altho those things have some common ground… and certainly have lent good needed support, they have made clear they are not against energy, pipelines, drilling, or business in the same way the climate change/environmental activists are. The Standingrock tribe just don’t want the pipeline on their land, or thru their water. They also do not completely trust the feds saying they are going to halt the project and find another place, so where they are grateful to Obama for helping halt and reconsider the relocation, the trust isn’t tried and true. Nor should it be.
      Some tribes allow drilling and want to make revenue.
      What the fight for overall is to stand against complete erasure of their peoples. So like Tressie wrote: “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.”
      it’s more like that.
      Common ground is harder when your ground has been completely stolen from you, etc. So when they are kind and gentle and peaceful… they are not having thanksgiving with you.
      When they express gratitude… it’s like reverence. Hope like what Tressie seems to be saying too…

  1. This is one of the only pieces I’ve read that gives me some real hope to cling on to. Thank you for not diminishing the severity of the situation while still maintaining realistic hope in people. I needed this

    1. I had been trying to think was to say because if felt important to respond and you said found the words.

  2. No. I’m a white South African woman. I’m going though this election with astonishment, how can people elect this dictator who will put this democracy back 50 years? I’ve seen it in South Africa , I left because of it and now 10 years later it’s here.

  3. Hope is elusive in the presence of Standing Rock water protectors and Michiganders protesting antiquated oil pipe line under Great Lakes.

  4. I was one of those who sat smugly on the couch, surprised and horrified, as each state fell for Trump.

    Your article is so well written, and gives much to think about.

    Thank you.

  5. Thank you, Tressie, for expressing so well the reservations I have been trying to explain for years — and, sadly, given up on trying. Although neither Black nor a sociologist (but read a lot and did a DE, I am a woman not from but who grew up mostly in the the very Deep South though the 50s and early 60s, lived overseas through the 60s, came back, escaped early 90s. Black voters saved Louisiana from David Duke in 1991.

    I have some idea how thin the veneer is and how easily it could crack. I’ve been hoping it would not. For over 50 years. Now what? Tired but not stopping.

  6. “The straight line requires a lot of erasers” – the tools to do the erasing and the people who use the tools to erase – the US has no shortage of erasers in every sense. Erasure is woven into our history, self-concept; embedded in our institutions and culture. To erase is an especially American enthusiasm, although we would never call it that. Rather, we “make space for innovation”.
    I’m thinking too about “professionally smart people” among whom I have spent much of my adolescent and adult life. These are some of the people most familiar to me, I walk among them, speak the lingo, share the culture and I am one of them until I diverge and step off the line or out of line.
    This “loveless place” we continue to shore up and re-imagine also mirrors who we have become as a society. that is painful and raw and bitter right now and has been for many for ages.
    This essay is one I will return to often. To reorient, to settle and prepare, to take my next cue. Because as you remind us all, “history isn’t a straight line” and equipping ourselves to resist fascism will require more than conversations. This essay brushes the last scales from our eyes so that we can genuinely see the work before us.

  7. I just wanted to drop a heartfelt thank you for this post. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your foresight, determination, grit and courage. #Salutes to you.

  8. Your analysis stopped me in my tracks. Thank you.

    I’ve never been a political person. I’ve taken the lazy luxury of believing that the United States aspired to the promise of what I’ve always understood it to be. I chose to believe that as a people, we were committed to leaving the ugly things to the past. I chose to believe that the majority of the country was invested in the fulfillment of the American ideal. That was naive.

    It’s not enough to resist. Hope isn’t going to do it. We need to change this.

  9. I clearly read something different then everyone else. I see no hope in her words for America. Looking forward, generation after generation will be just like the generations before. Mostly white (like me), and mostly racist.

    Until this election, I had fooled myself. Deeply. Now, I have no illusions. This year could easily be 1860. And in 2060 won’t be any different then now.

    Better to be aware of the world as it is then wish for what will never be.

  10. I will be sharing this essay widely, because you’re saying it so it’s getting through to me, and I hope it will have that effect on others.

  11. Thank you for writing this. You have managed to unscramble the thoughts in my head on this subject. It is what I’ve felt too, but couldn’t articulate as you have. I don’t ever want to be a professionally smart person, not this kind anyway.

  12. Thank you for making me think uncomfortable thoughts.

    Like you I thought that the election of President Trump was a viable possibility. As Sarah Vowell wrote about US imperialism, although we would like to think that that’s not who we are, from time to time that’s exactly who we are.

    I have looked for explanations besides racism and sexism because I don’t want to commit the errors of saying that every Trump voter is a racist/sexist, and everyone who didn’t vote for Trump is neither racist nor sexist. That leads to the failed strategy that all that you have to do to win is to get the non-racists and non-sexists to the polls. But your post suggests to me that there’s an equal danger in setting too much store in those other explanations, because it tends to normalize the racism and sexism.

    Your comment about different definitions of hope put me in mind of Craig Werner’s discussion about the blues and gospel: both spring from clear-eyed experience of the burdens of life, but the former deals with survival and the latter sets its eyes on redemption. There can be different kinds of hope – the kind that says, gray skies are gonna clear up, and the kind that says, no, skies are always gray, but we can still make it better if we all work on it. We don’t have to think alike.

    Finally, I am smarting at the line about how white folks like me require absolution in exchange for sympathy. I will admit to seeking approval, to validate myself (“Tressie likes me, and Tressie doesn’t like racists, therefore I am not a racist.”) and also to borrow that approval for others (“Tressie likes me, so you brothers and sisters know I’m down. We’re still saying ‘down,’ right?”). But I can’t stop thinking that it’s a very short step from approval to absolution, and that I do want it. That’s not who I want to be, but from time to time – possibly most of the time – that’s who I am.

  13. Splendid! Thanks for eloquently giving voice to thoughts in my head. I am not even mad, just tired and sad for those in the next generations, and wishing we had come further along the line of advancing humanity. I see what you mean– hopelessness, rather than blind hope and privileged assumptions that “everything will turn out ok, it’s not that bad”, actually gives us the incentive to fight against tyranny and keep fighting for equality and justice, even if we doubt we will see it in our lifetime. Even though I’m tired, I am once again reminded that the dark side of human nature can win, and it’s up to us who have our eyes open and see it to fight against it.

  14. Thank you Tressie. As Susan said above “You have managed to unscramble the thoughts in my head on this subject.”

  15. I agree with the author, but I find her reasoning for Donald Trump’s victory to be myopic. There is definitely a lot more going on than the color of people’s skin, that is influencing the political agenda. The prime culprit for me is computer technology. It is leaving billions of people on the planet behind. It is the new tool of the power elite to control the world. It is putting millions of people out of work and making others under employed. Without jobs people cannot sustain themselves and their families. Trump supporters want jobs, not open borders and socialism. Just ask Micheal Savage, he wrote the script for the Trump Presidential Campaign and they won. I did not vote for Trump, I just take a wider view of what happened.

  16. You use the term “professionally smart.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the term “IYI”: The Intellectual Yet Idiot.

  17. You have an incredible way of explaining a very complicated emotion – the hope within casual hopelessness. The hopelessness that fuels a driving need for change. Thank you so much for this post.

  18. This was so interesting to me! I loved reading your piece, it was truly informative and not naive at all. Thank you for sharing! And you know, in fact, it gave me hope. It gave me hope because it shows that not all people are blind, and unwilling to deal with real issue. Thank you. Thank you so much!

  19. Thank you for this. I only wish I’d found it sooner. I’m a professor and I’m sharing this with my students today. They need your thoughtful, brilliant voice.

  20. Nicely put. When I connected the willful blindness so common in our society with Trump’s gift for reading a crowd and telling them what they want to hear I really began to worry. Now I worry because I hear those really smart people saying that things can’t change that much. It’s presentism. Radical change is all too easy. It reminds me to read Isaiah.

  21. It’s a wake up call for black America
    I was not happy when He won. As the day went on I began to realize that now our ppl will began to get it together for themselves and their families So Trump being the POTUS is not a prob for ne or ny ppl because as a Christian I tend to go by
    what Gid’s wull is for my life

  22. Great post dear. U hit skin deep with this one. Reflecting the fact that no matter how many times we go to polls to vote for who or what we want. It somehow just stays a dream.

  23. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reread this and shared it with others. Thank you for expressing this so incredibly well. Thank you. I have so much to learn.

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