When you’re Black in America, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You’re either shiftless or too ambitious. If you’re too ambitious, you better not for one moment show a sense of comfort in your own skin lest you be deemed not serious enough for your lofty ambitions. And the enforcers of these precepts usually look and sound exactly as Jared Kushner and Peggy Noonan did this week.

Kushner, senior adviser to President Trump, who is also his father-in-law, is an unblinking proponent of the shiftless smear of Black people. “One thing we’ve seen in a lot of the Black community, which is mostly Democrat, is that President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about,” said the manner-born Kushner on Fox News. “But he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”

African Americans don’t complain. We demand, as in we demand to be able to live out the American Dream without fear, bigotry and discrimination stalking our every move. Then there’s the bald racism of Kushner’s calumny that Trump “can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.” That reveals a willful ignorance of the structural racism that has limited or snuffed out Black ambition since before the founding of the republic. Only someone with either no or merely surface-level relationships with African Americans would say something so ignorant with a straight, unflinching face.

Noonan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Wall Street Journal, has been a household name since her days as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. It was her artful use of a poem in a speech about the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 that put Noonan on the map. “We will never forget them,” Reagan said, “nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

Upon hearing what Noonan said about Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, a friend texted me, saying of Noonan, “She slipped the surly bonds of human decency.” Noonan’s offense was a column complaining about Harris not acting in a manner the conservative columnist deemed acceptable.

“She’s dancing with drum lines and beginning rallies with ‘Wassup, Florida!’ She’s throwing her head back and laughing a loud laugh, especially when nobody said anything funny,” opined Noonan. “She’s the younger candidate going for the younger vote, and she’s going for a Happy Warrior vibe, but she’s coming across as insubstantial, frivolous. When she started to dance in the rain onstage, in Jacksonville, Fla., to Mary J. Blige’s ‘Work That,’ it was embarrassing.”

No, what is embarrassing is a veteran political columnist who turns into a dance critic by ignoring what Harris actually said on the stump. And so what if she danced? As for Harris’s laughter, pity Noonan didn’t bother to zero in on what was said that led Harris to laugh in the first place. Sometimes a laugh is nervous energy. Sometimes it is in response to an asinine question. Sometimes it is the reaction to an inane assertion too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

Harris must be a vexing conundrum for Noonan. After spending generations at the center of America’s political and cultural life, White Americans like Noonan can’t seem to deal with someone like Harris, who is an avatar of the emerging majority-minority America more resolutely stepping into the spotlight and into leadership.

Harris is a Black woman born to immigrant parents in Oakland, Calif. In 2003, she was the first African American and first woman to be elected San Francisco district attorney. In 2010, she became the first woman and first Black person elected California attorney general. In 2016, she became only the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. And now she is the first Black woman to be on a major-party presidential ticket. Think of all the Noonan-like sexist and racist condescension Harris has had to endure while crashing through all of those barriers. Imagine how much more intense it could get if Harris is elected vice president of the United States.

By the way, Noonan’s sneering at Harris isn’t the first time she has looked down her nose at a Black elected official. “He is not a devil, an alien, a socialist. He is a loser. And this is America, where nobody loves a loser,” Noonan wrote in 2011 about President Barack Obama, who comfortably won reelection the following year. In the words of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star NeNe Leakes, “Girl, bye!”

Kushner and Noonan are the 2020 manifestation of what James Baldwin wrote about in his 1963 book “The Fire Next Time,” in which he sketches out the limiting boundaries placed around African Americans by Whites and details why pushing against those barriers engendered fear.

The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction.

The path of destruction is still there. The stereotypical notions of Black Americans as shiftless, too ambitious or not serious enough remain. As do the negative and sometimes fatal consequences of “challenging the white world’s assumptions.” What’s different today is that more Black Americans and Americans in general are not tolerating the nonsense of the likes of Kushner and Noonan anymore.

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The White House is considering President Trump holding an address to the nation on race and unity. Columnist Dana Milbank says he's already given it. (The Washington Post)

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