So this is America, after all. It’s not the one many of us hoped we lived in right now, but it’s the one verified by the electoral map, and it’s the one that others of us have feared we lived in for a very long time.
All through the election, Hillary Clinton’s surrogates tried to repudiate the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency and all of its strident, fear-laden rhetoric. America is better than that, they said. Those values aren’t American; those values don’t represent us.
All through Tuesday night, Wolf Blitzer and John King bickered in front of their CNN Magic Wall about the “surprise” and “upset” of Trump’s victory. No one saw it coming, they said. Nobody could explain it. It wasn’t until the wee, exhausted hours of Wednesday morning that Van Jones, an African American political commenter, broke in with a shaking, emotional voice and offered his explanation: “This was a white-lash,” he said. “This was a white-lash against a changing country. It was a white-lash against a black president, in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.”
What if America isn’t better than that? What if this was America all along?
Not the America that welcomed immigrant “huddled masses,” but the America that kidnapped African slaves and made them build a country, brick by brick and cotton field by cotton field. Not the America that lets women work and dress and worship as they please, but the America in which a man who sexually assaults one of them can be imprisoned for only three months. Not the America pulled along by hope but the America pushed along by aggression.
The people who were truly shocked by the outcome are those who have never experienced certain behaviors of the citizenry. Good men don’t realize that when women are walking alone, every single block can feel like a gantlet of harassment. It’s no wonder they don’t realize this — bad men make sure to treat women politely when women are accompanied by male friends. Good white people don’t fully understand why people of color fear encounters with the police, because the police have been mostly kind to them.
“I’m seeing so many posts, from mostly white friends, saying, ‘America, I don’t even know you,’ ” says Wendy Tien, a Milwaukee attorney and second-generation Taiwanese American. “And I’m thinking, ‘Where have you been? What do you mean you don’t know this America? Why haven’t you seen it?’ I’ve seen it. I see it all the time.”
On Twitter, after news organizations predicted the Republican candidate’s win, a woman wrote, “America: We knew this was in us. We usually like to pretend it’s a mistake or something we can ignore or mock. We can’t do that anymore.”
Analysts have been poring over the numbers, announcing that this was not really an election about race, but about class. There were, after all, counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and this year voted for Donald Trump. This was not really an election about gender, but about one particular woman that many people, including in her own party, hated. This was not really an election about xenophobia, they said, but an election about free-trade agreements and jobs.
This might all be true. Nobody can look inside the hearts of voters and determine with certainty what makes one candidate viscerally more appealing than another. Could this election, for some voters, have been a culmination of many factors? Economics, race, geography and gender? America’s history has never been a simple narrative.
“On Election Day, my white friends were posting pictures of Susan B. Anthony and talking about how great it was to honor her,” says Joylyn Hopkins, a consultant in the District, who is black. “And my black friends were commenting — yes, Susan B. Anthony did those things, but she was also extremely racist. We need to stop this thinking, where people are all good or all bad.”
This is America, the America that we built, the America that we all live in. But if this election taught us anything, it’s that we haven’t all been living in it in the same way.
“Now do you believe us?” tweeted Xeni Jardin, an editor in California, early Wednesday morning. “Us girls and women? Now do you believe Americans who are not white when they say white supremacy prevails?”
Jardin, who is white, grew up in a Southern city across from a prison, where she remembers that mostly white spectators would gather with coolers to celebrate the executions of mostly black inmates. But, she says, polite people didn’t discuss such things, just like they didn’t discuss sexual violence or other mistreatment of women.
It just existed, quietly, part of the rotten underbelly of that America.
Now it exists, loudly, part of the blaring horn of this one.