During the past six months, I’ve watched media outlets work themselves into a tizzy over the violence and hatred orchestrated by Donald Trump supporters. Commentators act like this is a relatively new phenomenon. But I know firsthand how any challenge to the nation’s established racial order makes some white folks lose their minds and their decorum.
For more than a decade, I wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune that often focused on race. Before Trump gave his supporters license to give in to their lesser selves and convey their hatred in mixed company, they did so in my email box. They are part of a disaffected angry knot of Americans who feel as though they’ve been bruised by diversity.
My experience isn’t unique. Any writer who has dared train a lens on race, women’s issues, social justice issues, immigration, abortion, sexuality, you name it, has faced some of the most vile backlash around.
Once, my neighbor, a dear friend who happens to be a white Republican woman, said to me, “I don’t know how you read the comments at the end of your column.”
I told her that they were nothing compared to my emails. It’s one thing to see these people on television or online, but to interact with them is quite another matter.
I learned early on that it was best not to take all of that stuff in. Even thick-skinned, seasoned writers aren’t completely immune to feeling as though a column or article has been reduced to a referendum on their very existence.
So, I developed a strategy. I deleted the emails that called me an N-word or “bitch” in the subject field. No need to open those. Some of my favorite emails were from readers who told me they refused to read my entire column, because they knew I was a “racist.”
I learned how to discern the thoughtful readers who asked a question because they sincerely wanted an answer from those who sincerely just wanted to bait me into an argument.
Emails that began: “Why do you people …” or, “Why do black people …” or “Why do my tax dollars have to go toward …” typically continued with a lot of generalities about people of color, with the question serving as a vehicle for hate-mongering.
Most of these readers identified themselves as “white.” Some would go on to outline how put upon the white race was. Interestingly, several suggested that white people needed their own version of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which would be known as the NAAWP.
But without the historical precedent, or irony.
One reader used to send me an email every time a police officer was killed. Another contacted me on Monday mornings to recount Chicago’s weekend violence. Both men asked me why blacks didn’t march against violence the way they marched against police-involved shootings of black folks.
I told them that I understood why they wanted to conflate the death of blacks at the hands of the bad guys with the death of blacks at the hands of the police. But they were fundamentally different. We expect the bad guys — no matter their race — to do bad things. But that’s not our expectation when it comes to police officers.
Neither reader was trying to hear me.
What they really want is to be angry because that covers up what they truly feel: fear. That’s the emotion into which Trump has tunneled. Many of his voters are afraid immigration and affirmative action will dilute their power and white privilege.
They’re foolishly terrified that if black lives really do begin to matter, that somehow will devalue theirs.
Issac Bailey, who’s African American and a former columnist with the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., wrote an eloquent piece about race and reporting for Nieman Reports, a publication of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. (Bailey is a 2014 Nieman fellow. I was there in the class of 2015.)
Bailey wrote about how the tenor of his emails changed after the country elected its first black president eight years ago.
“The messages I began receiving from readers went almost overnight from respectfully, if bitingly, confrontational, the kind any journalist, particularly a columnist, should expect, to overtly racist and demeaning,” Bailey wrote.
My emails took on a similar tone. But this year feels different.
Trump has emboldened his followers to emerge from the shadows and add a face to their incivility. What should we expect from a candidate who encourages brawls, proposes banning Muslims from entering the country, and calls Mexicans “criminals” and women “dogs”?
Maybe it’s good that these voters continue to reveal themselves and disabuse us — as if we needed disabusing — of the idea that we’re inhabiting a post-racial society. Maybe it helps us recalibrate for the many miles yet to go.
The way Trump talks to his supporters is provocative because it speaks volumes about white nationalism and its place in the Republican Party.
In a 1981 interview, the GOP campaign strategist Lee Atwater famously explained the evolution and vocabulary of dog-whistle politics, the way GOP candidates used coded language to communicate with their base. Atwater said that in 1954 politicians could use the N-word, but by 1968, they couldn’t.
“So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff,” he told the interviewer. “You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites…”
In 2016, Trump has turned the dog whistle back into a megaphone. It used to be that one of the worst things someone could call you in America is a “racist.”
The great tragedy is that it’s becoming palatable to actually be one.