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A Montanan Takes Notes on IRAAS's Black Truth

Updated on June 11, 2017
Photo from The Hate That Remains/New Yorker Magazine, 2016
Photo from The Hate That Remains/New Yorker Magazine, 2016 | Source

“You fight a war to own human beings, then you cast yourself as the VICTIM? To believe race is not a factor in Trump’s election,” New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb shook his head, “you have to jettison American history.”

Last summer, while I was in Montana making long-distance campaign calls for Bernie Sanders, Cobb was in a courtroom, watching young Dylann Roof defend himself: Roof had shot nine black people who'd taken him in to pray with them in a South Carolina church basement. That young man is, for now, on death row.

The Civil War may have ended 150 years ago, but there is still, Cobb insists, a perversion of lost pride for the Confederacy.

I was in New York City, on the campus of Columbia University to hear Cobb and his cohorts as they discussed "moving forward" after the 2016 election and predicted what’s next for all of us, particularly people of color.

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Moderator Samuel Kelton Roberts, director of Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) tried to coax optimism from his panelists at Columbia University's Miller Theater.

Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times, wasn't about to spread good cheer...“This shit’s always been bad," she said. "It can get worse.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, while I was packing up after spending nearly six decades in Montana, it was tough for me to get a true measure of urban black angst.

Heck. Until June, I lived in a state where there are more John Deere dealerships than black folks.

Ta Nehisi Coates
Ta Nehisi Coates

I may not understand black culture, but I could see from the body language on that stage that these were some mighty uncomfortable people of color.

Columbia Law professor Patricia Williams stared straight ahead, looking like a bus driver determined to dodge roadkill. Bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates slumped in his seat. Cobb's mannerisms indicated he might be more than a little nauseated, after months of riding Trump's Tilt-a-Whirl.

When the moderator, Prof. Roberts, said that, by now, he “felt things would calm down,” the whites in attendance managed a nervous laugh. The black people looked at each other, like, "Say, what?”

Many blacks have a four-letter word for the discomfort I woke up with on November 9: L-I-F-E. If I could find it, I'd post a link of a funny YouTube video of a white guy waking up screaming, screaming all through a normal day, until, at a park (still screaming), the camera pans to two black guys. "Man, one says to the other, they've been like this since the election."

When you're black, I guess, bad outcomes are never a surprise.

Jelani Cobb
Jelani Cobb

On this side of my TV remote, watching CNN, CBS and MSNBC, I assumed that black people LIKED Hillary. There had been loads of photo opps and endorsements.

Was Clinton perceived as a subtle racist? Did black voters expect her to win without them?

The motives might be difficult to tease out, but the result in the presidential election was predictable to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. "After Lincoln," she said, "came Hayes." After Lyndon Johnson’s New Society, Richard Nixon put both feet on the brakes. After Obama, we have Trump. “The only big difference,” Jones said, is that, “now, a lot of white folks seem to be living in OUR America.”

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For Jelani Cobb, Trump's election was an inevitable, slow motion collision: at a campaign rally in North Carolina, a Trump supporter asked him, ”What are you doing here?” Only in a scenario where Donald Trump could win the presidency would a scrawny white guy have the balls to corner a big black fellow like Jelani Cobb to ask that.

Soon after, a cabbie in Oakland, California asked Cobb, flat out, “You tryin’ to tell me Clinton ain’t a racist?”

Subtle and institutional racism aside, the culture we live in now has emboldened haters of all stripes. We live in a country where no one knows what’s going to happen next.

I'm not happy about it, but I am getting used to this.

The panelists at this IRAAS event fretted about Trump, his party, and his advisors. They worried about lopsided control--Republicans have the presidency, both houses of Congress, the majority of governors, and most state legislatures.Thanks to gerrymandered districts, many Republicans don’t even have to acknowledge minorities in their districts to get re-elected.

The best-case scenario, according to these experts? Hand out scoops and hold your hose...it's likely to get deep and smelly in here.

Demonstrations, town hall meetings, telephone calls, emails and more: it's why they call it activism.
Demonstrations, town hall meetings, telephone calls, emails and more: it's why they call it activism. | Source

“Because Trump lacks an ideological foundation, Republicans under his wing have taken to flapping their own agendas,” Hannah-Jones said. Everyone nodded (including the audience). Professor Williams likened Trump to "the mother rabbit in Watership Down, the character that "spread panic among her young."

Trump has worked his team, his supporters, and his enemies into a frenzy. Confusion is a healthy breeding ground for fear.

Ta-Neishi Coates, with the amused composure of someone who is paid to Chronicle the Apocalypse, wondered aloud about a possible “domestication of anti-terror laws.”

Worrying about Mexicans and Muslims was never going to be enough. Trump’s priming us to fear all our neighbors, our news reporters, Australia, and Meryl Streep. Once he rejects, expels or contains the people who LOOK like threats, will he focus the force of the Homeland against people who look…like me?

Jelani Cobb might be calling for all hands on deck, but he isn't manning the lifeboats: he's rooting for incompetence to buy time. “We have ineptitude on our side. There is virtue in them mucking up the machine, at least for the time being—it keeps them from imposing their agenda.”

Gosh, these black folks complain a lot like my mom’s relatives, who are mostly old Jews.

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I was taken aback though, when Hannah-Jones mused that Donald Trump’s election may be "racial revenge.” A stifled gasp was heard amid colloquial words of assent that were, understandably, not in this Montana gal's vocabulary.

I was just about to apologize to the person sitting next to me for being white when Roberts urged the panel to garnish ninety minutes of steaming pessimism with a sprig of hope.

Hannah-Jones offered the standard tidbit meant to encourage young activists, followed by a brief but awkward silence.

“Abolitionists, risked their lives to free escaped slaves," Ta Neishi Coates said in his closing remarks. "Abolitionists were called crazy until they were respected for doing the right thing...Frederick Douglass was called crazy when he urged dissent...Brave people are called crazy, right up to the time they are recognized for being right.”

What Coates didn't have to say is that, most often, the victor gets to decide who is crazy and who was brave.

This cowgirl sidled out of that lecture hall damn sure of one thing: for better or worse, things are going to get a bit crazy before they become more sane.

A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists with Lucretia Mott [seated second from the right].
A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists with Lucretia Mott [seated second from the right].

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      BaizBlogger 8 months ago from A Montanan Takes Manhattan: I thrive in a Culture Clash

      Thanks, Mark. It would be fun to have you come visit.

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      Mark Mathison 8 months ago

      Great article Claire. I wish I was at the meeting too.