Two things happened in parallel this week: the Republican National Convention and protests following the brutal, senseless shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who reportedly was simply trying to break up a fight. In both events I have seen such callousness, such blatant disregard for human decency, such cruelty, and such brazen, brutal, and deadly racism come right out of the mouths – and, in one case, the guns – of white people.
We’ll start with the RNC. The weeklong Trump lovefest was intended to make Republicans and leaners much more comfortable with supporting the president. And though there were numerous speakers of color who insisted that Donald Trump is not, in fact, a racist, the message was in no way aimed at Black and brown people. Instead, it was tailor-made for white suburbanites who have fallen away from the president and, so the thinking goes, just need an easy excuse to come back and vote for him.
And if being nice doesn’t work, how about a big dose of racially-charged fear?
The clearest expression of this came from Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished weapons at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in front of their home. First off, they were actually invited to speak, because of course they were. The right, in the Age of Trump, loves nothing more than taking disgusting, despicable people and elevating them in order to make liberals angry.
But they also had a message for the suburbs: Joe Biden and the Democrats are coming to ruin your neighborhoods.
“They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning,” Patricia McCloskey said. She added that this “… would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods.” Trump himself tweeted something very similar in the previous month.
I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2020
You can hear that racist dog whistle, right? Because I’ve lived in the suburbs all of my life, and I heard it loud and clear. “Low-income housing” is a way to talk about poor Black people, while “single-family home zoning” is all about keeping neighborhoods rich – and white.
The other side of the fearmongering was about “law and order,” and was a direct response to protests in Kenosha and across the country. Never mind that an innocent Black man was shot seven times in the back by police in front of his children. Never mind that a young Trump supporter drove to Kenosha from nearby Illinois and ended up shooting three protestors, two of them fatally, and was essentially ignored by the same Kenosha police despite reportedly approaching them with his hands up.
No, what Republicans want suburbanites to take away from Kenosha – and from Portland and Seattle and other cities that have seen major protests – are the images of burned-out buildings with graffiti on their walls. It doesn’t matter that they have to find stock footage from Spain to depict violence in “Biden’s America,” nor does it matter that this is actually still Trump’s America. This, they want you to believe, will be your town next if Joe Biden is elected.
Does it work? Of course it works.
There will always be white people who fall for these lies. The fear of race-based riots and “takeover” is a fear buried deep in the psyche of American whiteness. Maybe there’s a kernel of guilt at the heart of that, maybe there’s nothing but a cold emptiness, I don’t know. But it’s there. Trump knows this, and he’s going to exploit it. All of the arguments about law and order, about the “thin blue line,” about protecting the borders, all of these come back to the same base, ugly fear.
I have always hoped that we as a people could someday find redemption in setting right the sins of our forebears. I want to believe that white Americans can face our history, truly learn from it, embrace empathy and change, and finally escape the deadly weight of the past.
Donald Trump and the Republicans who enable him believe instead that the hearts of white people are empty, and that we’re motivated by nothing but fear and self-preservation.
I suppose we’ll find out who is right soon enough.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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