Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his own.
Peniel Joseph: People of color across the US are right to worry about President-elect Donald Trump.
We're witnessing "devolution of the ideal that racial justice is a moral and political good," he argues
Donald Trump’s refusal during his campaign to disavow a number of strange white nationalist bedfellows provided ballast for proliferating racial intolerance. Nationwide protests that erupted in the immediate aftermath of his election last week correctly anticipated the additional and growing surge of racial conflict that is threatening to become a regular feature of American life.
People of color across the United States, especially some of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, have good reason to be concerned about President-elect Donald Trump. Trump’s victory has galvanized racial and ethnic intolerance in America, with incidents of racial harassment, taunting and violence being reported by middle and high school students of color – some at the hands of their peers, others at the hands of teachers. This is horrifying, but should come as no surprise.
Young people imbibed important, at times self-destructive and irresponsible, lessons from the adults around them this past election season. Trump’s successful appeals to racial intolerance, bullying, misogyny, anger and fear have resonated deeply in the psyche of millions of our most impressionable future leaders – and their parents.
Students with undocumented parents, friends and relatives (or who are undocumented themselves) fear mass deportation, black students brace themselves for more rounds of racial assault and humiliation, young Muslims fear being labeled as terrorists, and LGBTQ teens face a more intolerant culture and the prospect of Mike Pence being a heartbeat away from the presidency.
At a broader historical level, it is not shocking that young Americans find themselves the focus of hate. Young people of color have always felt the sting of racial injustice and intolerance in very specific ways, and young whites too often were either the authors of or uneasy bystanders to that suffering. Public school segregation during the Jim Crow period denied African-American students educational resources and a sense of self-esteem while simultaneously normalizing anti-black racial violence, abuse and institutional racism to whites, for example. Young people themselves were instrumental, as the evidence of bias in Brown v. Board of Education’s negation of “separate but equal” and as activists during the civil rights movement, in dismantling Jim Crow.
President Obama’s election victory went a long way toward introducing new generations of Americans to the ideal of racial progress. The presence of first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia made black success, previously an anomaly found for many only on television shows, seem more like an integral reality of American life.
The Obama afterglow produced the much discussed and now dismissed notion of “post-racial” America along with suggestions that the nation’s young people, the hailed-and-maligned millennials, were less racist than their parents.
Trump’s victory undermines this apparent progress in crucial ways, especially the alt-right’s impressive indoctrination of young whites through social media. Soon-to-be senior presidential adviser Steve Bannon, as executive chairman of Breitbart Media, has been instrumental in this regard. Robust numbers of white millennials, especially but not exclusive males, who frequent a constellation of chat boards that are vociferously critical of feminism, racial equality and racial diversity reflect a young generation who are embracing a return to old-fashioned racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia.
Views on the Trump Transition
This brave new landscape facing young people of color is pockmarked with historic, contemporary and retrofitted forms of racial intolerance, a world wherein middle school Latino students can be frightened by deportation threats, black churches are targeted with racial slurs by pro-Trump supporters, and racially diverse populations feel stressed, anxious and fearful of what to expect for the next four years.
The transition from the Obama presidency to a Trump administration represents more than the often-referenced peaceful transition of power that illustrates American democracy’s enduring strength. In this instance, the transition signals a shift in America’s racial power structure, a harsh pivot away from the idea that national strength is embedded in cultural, religious and racial diversity. We are witnessing the devolution of the ideal that racial justice is a moral and political good, one enshrined as an American credo in the aftermath of the civil rights movement’s heroic period.
Since John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s forceful appeals to equal citizenship in the 1960s, every president has offered at least robust rhetorical support to racial justice in law and policy, with conservative Ronald Reagan signing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday into law and George W. Bush approving the construction of the Smithsonian’s recently completed African American Museum. Republican and Democratic presidents deferred sharp policy and ideological differences to find a point of unity in King’s dream of a “beloved community.”
Donald Trump’s election portends a rejection of this presidential consensus, in both words and deeds – a development that, like groundbreaking legislation or a museum intended for future generations, could shape history in ways that should have all Americans, not only people of color, worried.