Throughout this summer and autumn, I have interviewed fellow minorities, asking them about their feelings and experiences regarding this presidential election. In all of these interviews, one thing was clear: We knew this was coming.
To some of us, it hung like a foul smell in the air. The acrid stench that generations before somehow learned to live with, though it choked them. Many of us coughed and spluttered when that suffocating air filled our lungs. Some of us cried out in warning.
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But when those of us who spoke up were heard at all, we were greeted with disbelief, or with laughter. Like some others, I wrote about that laughter.
We were given the assurance that yes, there were some for whom that acrid stench was a breath of fresh air, but those foolish people were few and unimportant. We were told the smell would go away on its own. It went nowhere. It lingered. And it got stronger.
And for some of us, it was more than a smell. For some unlucky ones such as Kozen Sampson, it became a physical assault.
In February, Kozen parked his car in my beloved town of Hood River, Oregon, to take his dog for a walk. As Kozen told the town’s newspaper, “I started to get out of the car, and heard someone yell, ‘Hey,’ … The car door smacked my head and then my head hit the door frame … I lost part of my memory for about 15 minutes.”
When news of the assault hit our small town, it shocked us all. We had a hard time believing it, especially when Kozen reported that the only other words he heard were “F****** Muslim.” Kozen, you see, is not a Muslim, he is a Buddhist monk and, in typical Buddhist monk fashion, his response was filled with compassion.
“I am happy it happened to me and not to a Muslim,” he said.
‘I can’t feel safe in a third of my own country’
In my church, we spoke at length about the assault and what it meant. By February, we had already seen that racism and white nationalism were on the rise. The fact that an innocent Buddhist monk was attacked at all was shocking, but that he was attacked for being something he wasn’t, for being nothing more than “probably not white” was what really smelled.
Still, my town assumed it was isolated. We assumed there was a small minority of people filled with hate.
We assumed that the smell would go away on its own.
For months, news stories abounded about white people verbally or physically attacking minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Still, many people – mostly white allies – thought that it was rare. Not something to worry about.
Miguel Carlos didn’t believe that for a minute.
Miguel is a black designer who was living in Philadelphia in July, but was returning to his native San Francisco. “My white girlfriend and I are moving back to California this summer,” he told me then.
I was jokingly worried about being 'a big, opinionated negro' in the south before this summer. But now? It's untenable
“We had originally planned to drive across the country and stop in Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, and Phoenix. Needless to say, we’re not doing that any more.” Miguel and his girlfriend took an plane instead. Too many stories of white backlash attacks in too many disparate places made them cancel their trip.
“I was jokingly worried about being ‘a big, opinionated negro’ in the south before this summer,” he said. “But now? It’s untenable. It’s incredibly sad that in 2016, I can’t feel safe in a third of my own country.”
Miguel is not alone. By spring, many minority people in America had already changed their behaviour and outlook. Marina (name changed), an Asian artist from Los Angeles, began to avoid eye contact with people on the metro when someone looked at her and said, “Chinese people are so filthy”.
“These experiences with remarks, actions and violence have existed before but haven’t gotten the attention they’re getting now. Also, social media makes sharing these experiences easier than ever before, so things I’ve encountered I’ve kept to myself, but with Facebook and Twitter I’m talking about it.”
Talking with people throughout the summer, I saw this pattern repeated. Minority people of various ethnic, religious, and racial groups were all doing the same things.
They were talking about the foul smell in the air, pointing out the real danger to anyone who would listen, and they were all being more cautious around white people. Many of them changed their behaviour in small, subtle ways. “I wear headphones more at work now,” said Deborah (name changed), a white lesbian woman who wants to remain anonymous for fear of a backlash at the legal practice where she works outside Portland, Oregon.
“Because I just want to avoid the chance of getting into ‘that interaction’ again.”
“That interaction” was being verbally assaulted and called “evil” because she spoke about wanting to marry her partner. Even in Portland, national symbol of quirkiness, a lesbian woman felt afraid to argue for her right to a marriage that the state had already given her.
William James, a black writer and actor in Orlando, Florida, who did not want his real name used, had a somewhat similar take on avoiding arguments when he talked about the police. “The goal is not to win the argument,” he told me. “The goal is to get home alive.” William happens to be 4ft tall and his car is fitted with special gearing to allow him to drive only with his hands. It is a car that only someone his size can operate.
“But a white cop pulls me over one day,” he told me, “and is looking me up and down, looking at my insurance and my registration, and he asks me ‘Is this your car?’ I mean, what is that question supposed to mean? We all know what it’s supposed to mean. You’re looking at my registration, and I have a car only I can drive. I know why you’re asking that question, but I’m not going to say that, because the goal is to get home alive, so I just say ‘Yes, sir. It is’.”
This is America, 2016.
‘ White men are taking America back … to the 1850s’
I heard similar responses throughout the summer and autumn: Minority people universally spoke of this election as a threat, they spoke of being scared. White people universally saw it as comical, an accidental event that would just disappear, that couldn’t really happen here.
Sarah Kendzior warned us of exactly that sentiment. A political writer who studied fascism, Sarah has written of the seriousness of this election in numerous essays, telling us that “it can’t happen here” is exactly how fascism happens. Her essays are like a plan for how to avoid a catastrophe, yet it seems that no one wanted to bring her map on this journey.
In August, I warned us too, writing that “we are on the cusp of a historic decision in the US. We can make history and transition from the first black to the first female president. The alternative is to make history by electing our first fascist demagogue.” America has made our choice.
Some of us knew this was coming.
Rebecca Romani, an adjunct professor of ESL (English as a second language) and Media Studies at San Diego State University, has seen this in other countries and has been “deeply appalled and offended that we are heading down the slippery slope to racially – and economically – inspired fascism”.
“My grandparents were enemy aliens in World War II, we were almost in internment again in 2003, and I feel the icy breath of the ghost of E0 9066 rising for me, some of my friends and extended family.” Executive Order 9066 was the presidential authorisation for Japanese internment during World War II.
“I fear a return to some dystopian 1950s idyll where women and others knew their place.”
Miguel, now returned to his native San Francisco, put it more bluntly: “I’ve been saying all along that I’d wake up this morning still black in America, no matter who won. The south is unsafe for me because of the people there and their politics, not because of who’s president.”
William had been expecting it as well. “As people of colour we’ve known that racism has always been out there, but it’s been ‘somewhat’ under wraps. Now it’s been given a voice and subsequent free reign.”
“I’m just so very sad,” he continued, “that Obama has to hand over the keys to the very man who called his humanity into question. Just like those mothers of the movement, he doesn’t get the luxury of voicing his anger. He has to be the role model.”
That a white millionaire huckster won the presidency on the back of racism, misogyny, breaking of treaties with natives, and media trickery is the most American thing to ever happen in America
Some people feel sad, some are angry, many are just more scared than they were before. This summer, such an outcome was only a possibility; now, it is a reality.
The day after the election, William and I talked about our outlook and about the older generation of black people who are now speaking words like “Hold your tongue” and “Be careful,” words they used in the days before and during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Being a part of that older generation,” he said, “I have to agree with them. [White men] are taking America back … to the 1850s. The landscape is changing. Those in power who have a similar point of view as yourself may not be in power tomorrow. And let’s not forget the promised bald-faced retribution.”
William told me to be careful of that retribution when I write. “You can’t afford to go full bore.” But that is the silence that allows fascism to rise. That fear causes the silence Sarah Kendzior warns us about. She noted on Twitter that researchers pitched a story about how white nationalists were radicalised online, but the story was refused because the media was afraid to run it .
The New York Times reported that The American Bar Association refused to publish a report about the presidential candidate citing the threat of being sued. Let that sink in: The governing body of America’s lawyers is afraid of being sued.
They were scared into silence by our (now) president elect. This is the silence that allows fascism to rise.
Silence is what hog-tied the Republican Party, fear of retribution caused them to accept their fate. The silence of Liberal America allowed a demagogue to rise as they laughed at him and his followers.
And then there’s the silence of the Democratic Party. A silence of short-term economic goals and the knowledge that they didn’t have to actually perform for marginalised communities in order to be “owed” their votes.
|Supporters of US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton react at her election night rally in Manhattan [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]|
Many of us know that the Democratic Party was no small part of what was to come.
This has been brewing since the neo-liberals took over Congress, increasingly gutting anti-trust regulations, workers’ protections, promoting violent policies towards other nations “in our national interests”, and ever moving the party towards the right.
The appearance of Democrats as disconnected and “the educated elite” was bolstered by the fact that, by and large, the national party turned its back on both actual peace in the rest of the world and on the survival of the working-class whites who should have been part of its base.
Today working-class whites can’t look to the Democrats for real support, and minority people are increasingly angered that their vote never results in substantive change for the better. Is it any surprise that the minority vote was apathetic and the white vote was against them?
And yet, still, many people were surprised.
There is nothing at all surprising here. This is a trend that has been nearly a century in the making. Minority people across America – especially black women – have been warning us about it while Liberal America laughed at John Oliver’s jokes.
Now Liberal America is reeling. Hamid Dabashi wrote in Al Jazeera that “Liberal America is now scared that [he] will do to America what America has done to the world.”
“… For the world at large,” Dabashi wrote, “and at the receiving end of American military might, [he] is the very quintessence of America because [he] is what America does to the world, and now it has come dangerously close to do unto itself what it has habitually done unto others.”
This is certainly true, but it’s not the entire truth. The truth is that America is dangerously close to doing unto it’s white self what it has habitually done to others. America, as a whole, has never had much of a problem doing exactly that to its black and brown citizens.
Ask black and Latino people who have lived for generations with an increasingly militarised police force if things will suddenly be different for them in America. Ask the Native people protesting for water security at Standing Rock if life will suddenly be different for them in America.
When has America not been a colonial power to its black and brown people? At its best, America holds a grudging tolerance for us – giving us access to the legal system, yes, but modifying it for white convenience and “safety”. At its worst, America attacks black and brown citizens with laws designed to deny black agency and meets black freedom with military force. Even now, America gasses indigenous brown people on their native land in favour of a corporate entity.
The truth is that for many minority people America has always treated them the way that it has treated the world. The only thing that has changed is that now America is about to turn on its white citizens too.
This is what Jean-Paul Voilleque, a straight, white lawyer in Portland, found the day after the election. He was dressed in his business casual jeans and a bright blue shirt, and was met on his way to work by the new regime. Crossing a footbridge over the Willamette River, a white man “in well-worn clothes” shouted that he was “a faggot”. Another white woman, wearing a scarf to cover her head from the chill, was told to go back to her own country.
Martha, a white public school teacher is “furious at myself, a middle-class heterosexual white woman, for being a part of what got this country to last night’s horror show. My heart was shredded last night for those in our country whose lives have been pushed even further to the margins by their fellow Americans.”
But this isn’t about the historically marginalised any more. As of this election, even straight, white Americans will be pushed to the margins. We have not only emboldened a white racist backlash against black and brown people, we have emboldened a backlash against anyone who is not white in the right way.
This is what we have become. This is what decades of Democratic complacency and Republican racism have led to. This is what decades of liberals’ silent acceptance of racism and misogyny have led to. This backlash is what comes from liberal talk of “post-racial” America simply because we had a black president.
It’s disheartening, but it’s not surprising. Many of us knew this was coming. We have choked on the foul stench of white supremacy for a very long time. In many ways, it was what we expected to happen.
Miguel put it best: “That a white millionaire huckster won the presidency on the back of racism, misogyny, breaking of treaties with natives, and media trickery is the most American thing to ever happen in America.”
White America may be surprised by this election’s result, but black and brown people have warned of this for a long time. It’s just that white America doesn’t seem able to listen to a black voice.
John Metta has worked as a cook, groundskeeper, store clerk, park ranger, Navy submariner, Army wartime medic, hydrologist, school teacher, software developer, mathematical modeller, and underwater archaeologist. Before any of these jobs, and during them all, he was writing. Always writing.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.