The work that lies ahead

Solidarity between the North & South, urban and more rural: a march in Harlem, 1965.

Day broke to a low drizzle here in Durham, and Donald J. Trump was president-elect of the United States.

This election means, first of all, that many people will die who did not have to die. The Trump administration, in concert with a Republican Congress, will strip many thousands of their healthcare; if it keeps Trump’s promises, it will deport millions of immigrants; it will annihilate vast stores of American wealth; it will permit companies to lay waste to the earth and the waters; it will remove legal protections for LGTBQ Americans; it will empower and embolden police in the indiscriminate use of violence, especially in communities of color, as it enacts all of this. Every piece of this will kill people—above all women, those of color, the poor, and those who’ve come to America in hope and through hardship. Plenty of White men will die too. And there will be much more suffering among the living.

It is important to name these consequences for a few reasons. First, let no one tell you that grief is inappropriate. Second, let everyone be clear about whose fear today is most acute—not because any group of fearful people should be disregarded, but because there is a clear hierarchy of need and a moral imperative to allocate our resources accordingly. Third, let us affirm the moral urgency of organizing to resist the violence Trump has declared as policy. Finally, because this violence will touch everyone, let us insist that everyone—everyone—has a role to play in that organizing if they ask for it.

Millions have already begun. For its grave flaws, Hillary Clinton’s campaign drew the work of bright and faithful young Americans of all colors. And community organizations across the South and the country have carried on good work against the impositions of governments and private citizens for generations. If we haven’t already, we ought to go and listen to them; go and lend them our time and our tongues and our bodies.

Local organizing is important for the resistance it permits. But it is also important for the way it may allow us to listen. No analysis of Trump’s victory will be complete today, but one partial thesis is that it was permitted or even made inevitable by our failure to listen to one another—and the failure of those with power to listen to those without it.

Here is the first shape that failure takes: Our economy has created a kind of structural grief which is everywhere ignored or denied. The flows of capital and population to cities have annihilated rural towns and with them rural ways of life. Extractive industry has eradicated the lands and waterways on which people grew up. In most towns, children leave and don’t come back. Jobs are hard to come by. Most communities know a degree of this anguish, but it afflicts rural America above all.

Donald Trump was elected partially as an insistence by rural Whites that this anguish be heard—over the platitudes of the Democratic Party, which absorbed some of Bernie Sander’s policy platform but little of his insistence on conveying the recognition of that anguish; and over the much more mendacious and malevolent usurpation of that anguish by several decades of Republicans, toward their own empowerment and the empowerment of the wealthy they actually represent. To hear these countrymen of ours would be to recognize the absurdity of the fact that the Democratic Party—which believed itself to be the party that cared about the poor, the dispossessed—believed before a single ballot was cast it would win among college-educated Whites but not among those without college degrees.

The Democrats tolerated this incongruity because they believed that these rural White Americans were being goaded on by Trump’s racism. That is also true. It should not surprise us. It is no accident, in America, that White anguish manifests itself as the denial that Black (or Muslim, or Latinx, or…) lives matter. Here’s the truth: American racism was invented to relieve White Americans of economic suffering caused by other White Americans.

Dr. King knew this, and he’s worth quoting at length. “The segregation of the races,” he said, “was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land… If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.” Racism is the bulwark to which White identity retreats when it is beset by social and material degradation. The last several decades of stagnant income and urbanization have provided both in spades.

And therefore the second shape of our failure to listen: White America has not listened to the generations of Americans of color who have seen their loved ones harassed, brutalized, raped, and murdered merely because of their identity. Indeed, these Americans’ righteous and direct assertion that their lives matter, that they ought to be free from state violence and private degradation, is heard as a direct challenge to that bulwark against White anguish. White America has inherited a bully’s ethos: that it is made large only by the smallness of others. And this is why so many see themselves in the bully Trump.

It’s for this reason that the first task of local organizing is to include and stand in solidarity with those who are newly threatened with violence and degradation by White self-assertion—to find ways of signifying that solidarity, and most of all, of making that solidarity useful as active mechanisms of defense. We who would resist Trump must recover and study the long and brave traditions of resistance in America, and recognize that meaningful resistance will demand courage that many of us have not had to offer before.

In the short term, a piece of this resistance will also be trying to understand how we can provide for each other without relying on the state as intermediary. In our cities and towns, we should ask: How do we support the thousands who will lose their access to healthcare? How do we provide food to the thousands who may lose SNAP? How do we protect the land and water we hold in common? Answering these questions will take courage too.

But even asking these questions—which we’ve already begun to do—involves recognizing that while organizing must begin by defending marginalized communities, it just as surely must extend beyond that work alone. To mistake Trump as a threat to marginalized communities alone is to allow his racism—and its sibling sentiments of misogyny, homophobia, ableism—to do the work for which it was originally intended: to veil the exploitation and degradation of White Americans. If our first step is to vigorously defend the bodies and identities of those in marginalized communities, our second must be to insist that our rhetoric and our politics acknowledge and hold as equally legitimate both the relative security and absolute vulnerability of White bodies. (That means resisting false equivalency even as we insist that Brooklynites ought not make redneck jokes for the same reason that White folks ought not make Black jokes.)

This is the major and crucial task that the left has so far failed to achieve: to articulate a vision for a system beyond or reforming liberal capitalism, one that cares for the lives and identities of people of color, immigrants, queer folks, and other marginal individuals even as it also cares for the lives of White folks, folks in the countryside, evangelical Christians--and indeed recognizes the ways in which many Whites are themselves made marginal by other Whites. The left must figure out how to insist that these kinds of caring are not only not in conflict, but in fact mutually reinforcing; it must discern a terminology for that insistence which subverts the deep presence of racism in our ideas of the world while also reaching those who most need to hear it.

We do not have this vision today. We do not have this terminology. And neither is accessible except through listening. We will not be guided to the politics we need by editors holed up in New York City.

As for me, my thinking continues to return to the need to meet and to listen in the spaces others have created for those purposes.

I think I have a lot to hear which I have not heard. I think I have to get out of Durham and listen to some of the folks I heard in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on election day. I have to invite them to come listen here in Durham. I have to listen especially to what is hard to hear—to acknowledge unacknowledged pain and unacknowledged fear. I have to listen to folks whose racial animus I am also trying to fight. I must find ways to listen that can accompany active resistance to violence. I have to own that I am not sure where this will lead. But I will spend a few hours each week on the road. I am grateful for the organizations that have already blazed this trail.

Because let’s not forget: Had Clinton won, we would also have had work to do. Our choice of president shapes the conditions under which our problems must be solved, but it does not solve them—ultimately, only we can do that. Only we can love one another. In this sense—as ever—we are not called away from the values or the practice of our democracy but toward a truer and more honest realization of them: That only we can protect one another, and we must protect everyone; only we can do the listening which will permit us to recognize one another, and we must recognize everyone.