I think it’s safe to talk about this now. The initial passions and anger have cooled down somewhat, people have had time to process, and start to figure out how they’re going to move on from here. Here being the last Presidential Election, and the election – and inauguration – of President Donald Trump.
I’m not here to add my voice to the countless others railing against our new President, why he isn’t fit for this job and so forth; if you voted for his opponent his failings are obvious and if you voted for him they’re irrelevant, and I’m not going to be able to convince anyone either way.
What I want to talk about here, is us – America. The kind of people we are, the kind of people we were, and how remembering some of that history can help us see what happened, and where we can go from here.
Let’s start with a simple, if uncomfortable, fact – the same nation that elected Donald J. Trump in 2016 is the same nation that elected Barack H. Obama in 2008 and the same nation that re-elected him in 2012. You might start to wonder what happened to us during that time and there is no shortage of commentators happy to tell you what did happen in the last eight years to bring us to this sorry state of affairs.
But what I’m saying, here, is maybe not as much changed – for worse or better – as we think. Maybe Trump was elected because when it comes to civil rights, America’s always had a lurching, two-steps-forward-one-and-a-half-steps-back sort of progress – which is to say, progress, just not as much as we’d hope:
- You may have heard of the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in history class. Southern states wanted slaves to count toward their total population, which in turn determines how many seats they would get in the House of Representatives; “free” states objected – they insisted only free citizens should count. The compromise was that slaves and Native Americans would count as three-fifths of a human being for Census purposes.
We can look back now in judgment on the “founding fathers” apparent willingness to look away from the horrors of slavery; but at the time we were a small and weak country, a tempting target for at least two hungry empires – the French and Spanish – and the vengeful British Empire. We needed the support of all the States, both slave and free. That said, the issue of slavery and its consequences would continue to haunt the new nation throughout its history…
- One of the few bright spots in the dark days of the Civil War was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In the wake of the War, Emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, abolishing slavery, establishing American citizenship for all people born on its soil, and guaranteeing equal rights for all races. Alas, in the rush to put the horrors of the Civil War behind them, American society failed to follow through on the promises now enshrined in our Constitution, and were willing to ignore the injustices of lynchings, Sundown Towns, Jim Crow laws and segregation for the next century.
- The struggles and gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s is still living memory for many of us, myself included. We saw the end of Jim Crow and “separate but equal,” but we have since seen the rise of “broken windows” policing, mandatory minimum sentences, “tough on crime” laws and the War on Drugs, with America becoming the nation with the largest prison population in absolute terms, and the second largest per capita (after the Seychelles Republic); with African Americans accounting for 40% of that population despite being only 13% of the U.S. population overall.
So given all this, the election of Trump actually makes sense: we made the the progress of electing Barack Obama; Trump is the backlash. But the fact remains an African-American has been President, and he will not be the last.
There will be times it will seem that the progress we made was just an illusion, that we are on the verge of losing everything so many people have sacrificed so much for. Don’t. Lose. Hope. Trump is not our last President. There’s lots of people fighting out there now to help us hold on to what we gained. America has moved back; but it will move forward again, just a little further, someday.
We’ll make it, you’ll see.
It’s been a long journey but it’s nowhere near over.