When I was invited to preach at a white Episcopal church in Charles Town, West Virginia, the lead priest of that congregation called me to kind of coach me on how to approach the congregation.
I was/am an educated African American woman. Her congregation was highly educated as well, but there is an issue of which I needed to be aware.
“They’re very sensitive about being talked down to,” she said, going on to explain that many white Southerners feel marginalized and put down by the “elites.” The elites were those with a lot of education, white people, she said, who they felt were always thinking that Southern white people were inferior, uneducated and, frankly, beneath them.
They were thus sensitive to being talked to in a way by an educated person which spewed that sentiment, and they were equally as sensitive about being called racist. Most of them hotly denied that they were racist, and would react badly if anything in my sermon got to that space of emotional pain that many white people, Southerners and Northerners as well, have carried for decades.
I was grateful for the priest’s “warning,” and worked very hard to make sure what I preached about – even though it was about racism – was not in any way an attack or a put down. Racism, I preached, was an aberration of spirit, something which Americans carry without even thinking about it. I worked very hard to illustrate the connectedness of all human beings, the ways in which we are the same regardless of color, before I got into the meat of the message, describing the damage racism does and has always done. It is America’s disease, I preached – not a new sentiment at all – but one which America has yet to acknowledge. And I tied all of what I was preaching about with the story of little Ruby Bridges, the little black girl who for a year sat in a classroom in New Orleans all by herself because racist people would not let their children be near her. I have a gift as a storyteller and worked the story so that the people could find the commonality of experience, the commonality of pain, the commonality of what it is to be a parent.
I think of that Sunday often. Charles Town is the city where John Brown was hanged for inciting an insurrection. It is rich in Southern history, a history which is rich with the stories and experiences of a culture which is racist but which ignores it in the hope of the reality of racism going away. America wants to keep its dirty little secret – which is not so little at all and which is definitely not a secret- hidden away in a closet, and believes that if the secret stays in the closet, all will be well.
That belief, however, has always been wrong, and the proof that not talking about racism makes it go away is pushing up in the midst of this presidential election cycle. Donald Trump is feeding those who, like the Episcopal priest told me, are sensitive to being called racist and uneducated. A memo circulated by the Trump campaign vowed to concentrate on that group of people. (http://dailycaller.com/2016/08/06/trump-campaign-memo-primary-strategy-was-to-provide-safe-space-for-voters-called-bigots/) They are the ones who are screaming loudest about the “elite” people, those, they believe, who have been in power for too long. Their voices, beliefs and needs have been marginalized, ignored and cast aside for too long, in the quest of being politically correct, and being politically correct has meant “not talking about” racism and how the government, they believe, has done too much for black, brown and poor people, at the expense of white people.
The belief in white supremacy has driven American culture from its inception. After Reconstruction, whites who believed in their supremacy and resented the perception of blacks that they were equal with whites and therefore were owed the same rights, put Jim Crow into effect, effectively thrashing the gains made by black people, especially their right to vote. They believed then and many still do that America is a “white man’s country.” That doesn’t make them racist, they believe. That just makes them American.
No matter what, they have always been able to rely on their skin color to keep them in the running for the American dream, but globalization, making it possible for more people of color to invade what is supposed to be a white space, has weakened their status. They not only see more people of color coming into their land, they read or have heard the reports that by 2043, white people will be the minority in the United States. (https://mic.com/articles/106252/the-year-white-people-will-become-a-minority-in-america-has-been-declared#.TCKjBGUh9)
Donald Trump is speaking to a group of people who are angry, who have been marginalized by a government they think has been too big and too willing to embrace people of different races and religions, and who are seeing their version of white supremacy get more and more watered down. What they want “back” is the America where their status was secure.
That’s not going to happen.
But their fear is something Donald Trump knows. The group to whom he is speaking is vulnerable to his rhetoric, but the truth of the matter is that whites who are educated and who have gained pieces of the American dream are worried as well. “The marginalized” is not so small a group as many would like to believe. America is changing, and not many white people like it at all. Trump knows that, too – that whites of all classes are worried.
And so he is plowing through this campaign saying whatever he wants, challenging what has “always been,” promising that he alone will change the trajectory of a world which has not stood still, white supremacy notwithstanding.
And in his quest to speak to the hearts and concerns of those who feel abandoned and ignored, he is winning.
A candid observation …