This piece was solicited by Ireland’s The Journal, asking essentially what the hell is happening in America. They first published the views of people of color, then ran mine yesterday.
What we are witnessing now in America is the last stand of the old, white man.
Four years ago, when speaking to groups outside the United States, I would apologize for Donald Trump. It got a laugh, until it didn’t. As an American, I must still apologize for what Trump has done to my country and what my country has done to the world by electing him. As an old, white man, I must confess it is people like me who got us here.
America’s paradoxes have come home to roost. Ours is a nation of freedoms built on the slavery and undervalued labor and lives of black people. Ours is a nation of equal opportunity that exploits the inequality of people of color and immigrants, of the poor.
The nation’s systemic racism has always been there, of course, but it becomes sorely evident in times of crisis. The COVID pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color — killed them — because as a group they have worse health care. Many of them are the “essential workers” doing thankless jobs, exposed to the virus every day. Many are poor people who cannot afford to lock down at home; they must work to eat. Too many of them lost their jobs. In my city, New York, they disproportionately live in crowded housing and must take long rides on contaminated subways to work and when they get sick the hospitals in their communities are underfunded and overcrowded.
Once it became clear that people of color and old people were COVID’s primary victims, calls came to reopen the economy, as if to say: These people do not matter.
And in the midst of that crisis, once again, a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by police for the crime of being black. Any African-American can tell you that they and particularly their young men live in peril every day of a white person calling the police on them for shopping, eating, walking, even bird-watching while black — and that the arrival of police can, as in the case of George Floyd, be a death sentence.
This everyday danger became evident with social media and the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #LivingWhileBlack. It was not evident in mass media because those communities and their stories were sinfully underrepresented in newspapers and their newsrooms. And so, as an old, white journalist and editor myself, my confession continues.
I was raised in the sixties and I feel as if I am reliving them — with reruns of political turmoil, racial strife, riots, police abuses, even a rocket launch — and we have learned no lessons in between.
As a child of those sixties, I was raised to believe in a colorblind America, in the great melting pot. I did not learn until much later how wrong and racist that presumption was: that the nation would reach racial harmony once the others acted like us, like the white majority (although we would do everything not to let them).
Soon, by 2050, the white majority in America faces the reality that it will become the white minority and that scares them. The most frightened are the uneducated, old, white men who hold privilege and power and realize how tenuous that hold is because it is based on what they had in the past — who they are — rather than what they contribute to the future — what they can do. These are the people who formed the concrete core of Trump’s so-called base. They exploited an unrepresentative democracy designed to protect slave states — in the institutions of the American Electoral College and Senate — to get Trump elected, to get old and white men to rule the Senate, and to fill our courts for a generation to come with their judges. It will take generations to undo their damage and even if we do, we’re only back at square one: at an America still undergirded by systemic racism.
The author and Professor Ibram X. Kendi argues in his book, “How to be an Anti-Racist,” that the opposite of a racist is not someone who claims to be not a racist but instead someone who fights racism, who is anti-racist. We need to become anti-racist in every American institution, starting with the political.
In this election, I first supported Sen. Kamala Harris. I was ashamed to see how political media all but erased her candidacy, for she is African-American and a woman. Then I supported Sen. Cory Booker, who is black. Then I supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is a woman. Now I am supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, who is an old, white man. He’s a good man. I pray for his election.
The only way Biden will win is if African-American women and men, Latinas and Latinos, the disenfranchised and the educated of this country come out to vote and fight for this change. He cannot take these constituents for granted. As Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., just said on TV, the scale of Biden’s response must meet the scale of the problem.
He must promise them a new America — not a return to any old America. He must offer a nation truly, finally built on freedom, opportunity, and equality with institutions — government, education, health care, employment — that right systemic wrongs. As an old, white man, I must learn how to share, to give up my power and privilege to those who have been deprived of them.
I pray for the president who follows Biden to lead this work, to finally end what we have now: the tyranny of the privileged, entitled, scared, angry, racist, fascist, old, white man, Donald Trump and those he represents.