Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The classic civil rights narrative pits violent white segregationists against dignified black protestors. It implicitly asks, are you with Bull Connor, or are you with the good people? This self-serving question teaches us to forget about the moderate majority that defeated the civil rights movement. It tells us to forget the bipartisan nationwide consensus that demanded the preservation of segregated neighborhoods and schools. It's a story that establishes our innocence.
Selma, 1965. Quick! Can you guess who the good characters are?
It’s like the boy who asked his grandpa, “Which were you in, the Klan or the FBI?” His grandfather replied, “I was just in Georgia.” This little anecdote reminds us that the story of the civil rights movement’s defeat is not one of Klan terrorism or rogue policeman. It is a story of ordinary people invested in ordinary things. Good homes and schools for their children, a future for their grandkids. Maybe they didn’t think too much about the civil rights movement. Maybe they were just in Georgia. 

Over time, it became easier to tell the story with sharp contrasts and careful embellishments. Of course you weren’t with Bull Connor. And that meant you were one of the good folks.

Now Hillary Clinton and many liberals would have us draw again from this well. Her controversial comments revealed over the weekend invite us to take sides, in effect asking, “Are you with Donald Trump and his deplorables, or are you with the good people?” 

This question might win an election. But it won’t produce justice and freedom for the people who need it most. 

The problem with Clinton’s remarks is not so much that they unfairly accused Trump’s supporters, but that they unfairly absolved the rest of us. In Clinton’s world, half of Trump’s supporters are irredeemable, the other half have succumbed to their economic frustrations, and those of us who have not felt the allure of Trumpism are, presumably, free from the prejudices and backwardness of a fading and reactionary White America. 

In this unwarranted claim of innocence we can begin to see why Donald Trump’s racism is so insidious. Trump doesn’t just embolden racists and create a hostile climate for people of color. His racism dramatically lowers the bar, confuses the issue, and misdirects attention on questions of racial justice. It invites people who are invested in exclusionary lifestyles to imagine that their opposition to a racist puts them on the side of justice. 

“I may oppose the low-income housing development in my neighborhood, but Donald Trump offends me.” 

I may not want poor school districts to get more state funding than wealthy ones, but I’m not voting for Trump.”

“I may not support Black Lives Matter but I’m voting for Clinton.”

“See how innocent I am?”

Clinton’s comments meet the bar of technical truth: the polling does show higher levels of prejudice among Trump supporters. But her dismissive contempt displayed none of the Christian conviction that being deplorable is one of the few things we all have in common. More practically, her words denied the messy realities of translation from personal lives to political expressions. How many of the donors in the room to hear Clinton’s remarks live in gated communities and send their children to private schools, carefully insulating themselves from the poor? Voting for Clinton will not redeem their selfish choices. Meanwhile, how many of Trump’s “deplorables” support his racist campaign even as they stand ready to give the shirt off their back to their poor neighbors? Life is complicated. 

The way some liberal writers have rushed to defend Clinton, you’d think she made some grand statement about social justice. No, she didn’t. She’s just trying to win an election. And it’s important that she does so! But on the other side of November 8th we’ll still face the deeper problem: ordinary people invested in ordinary things, manning the ramparts of a segregated and unequal society so that their children might have a better life. 

It sounds to me like Hillary Clinton’s comments conjured a much more comforting story. You don’t have to think about the hard stuff of power—school district lines, zoning laws, tax rates, the criminal justice system. You don’t have to think about how the laws and systems that need to change implicate all of us and have bipartisan support. You don’t have to think about how ordinary people like you might try to divest from the status quo. Indeed, like her, you might want to grab all you can get while you have the chance. Temperance is such an old-fashioned virtue. But make sure you display your general aura of cosmopolitan tolerance now and then. Happily, you can perform it on the cheap this year: just vote against Trump. 

We must defeat Trump. He has revealed himself as a cruel and ignorant man who dreams of oppression. But when this dirty task is done and Trump has lost, those who seek justice should not assume that we have an ally in the White House, or that we need to look any further than ourselves to find something deplorable.

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