Just before Donald Trump tweeted that the impeachment investigation was equivalent to a lynching, I had the opportunity to hear Ta Nehisi Coates, National Book Award winner and one of America's leading essayists on the topic of race in America.
Most people might recognize his work through the movie "The Black Panther" that was based off a Marvel comic book series he wrote imagining an Africa never seized by people who traded in human lives, or his Atlantic essay titled "The Case for Repatriations", or his book "Between the World and Me," which Toni Morrison called "required reading." Coates was in Portland to speak about his first novel, "Water Dancer." He describes his book as part historical fiction, part magic realism and entirely a story meant to empower us to be more than the sum of our evil.
The discussion that evening was led by New York Times best-selling author Reneé Watson and it was both enlightening and all-together too brief. The subjects those two brilliant thinkers spanned went from the how and why of writing, to the need for reparations and the pernicious and insidious malevolence of today's brand of white supremacy.
This is the brand that has some white people convinced racism is a bygone attitude, tempered by time and intellect and "better angels." It is the brand that believes that once freed from the chains of slavery and Jim Crow laws, African Americans and anyone else caught in the tethers of racial animus had and have the same opportunities for the "American Dream" as everyone else. It is the brand that casually overlooks all the ways our laws and customs buffer one group of people while buffeting another. It is the brand that is blind to the accumulated disparities, the humiliated lives, and the desiccated dreams that surround them. It is the brand that believes that the legacy of captivity has no lasting reverberation, that the drum beat of inequality only echoes among those that don't have the wherewithal to listen to a different drummer.
And, it is the brand of racism that gave President Donald Trump the tacit permission to compare the inconvenience of an impeachment inquiry to the violence of being lynched. The analogy was a grotesque example of the hubris of white supremacy. The idea that Trump's wound is the same as the wounds suffered at the hands of racial terrorists, that the sting of questions is the moral equivalent to being hung by the throat or burned at the stake or dragged behind a vehicle until your body falls apart piece by piece, is the height of arrogance and ignorance. More than 4,000 men, women and children were "lynched" in America in the last century and a half; 99% of those lynchings went unprosecuted. Since 1918, 200 bills have been brought before Congress to make lynching a federal crime. Not until 2018 did a bill finally pass the majority white body. Ironically, it seems President Trump didn't truly understand the meaning of the bill he signed into law.
Trump's tweet about lynching, and then his follow-up comments days later at a historically black college where he said he could now "understand" the persecution faced by African Americans because of his own persecution at the hands of Congress were not just craven and self-obsessed, but more important, they are dangerous. From the day he opted to run for the "leader of the free world," Trump's words and actions have fed the white supremest movement. His attacks on Muslims and Hispanics; his minimization of racial terror; and his calling the torch-bearing Charlottesville vigilantes "good people" have fed those among us who wrongly believe that the land they stand on is made for their blood and breath alone.
One of the things Ta Nehisi Coates spoke about in Portland was why he does not refer to captured people as "slaves." To enslave someone, he said, is an action. When you are labeled by what is done to you, you lose your identity. "Your ancestors were not slaves," he said "they were enslaved. This is an important difference," he said.
Instead, he called on people to be defined NOT by what is done to you but by what you do:
If you save someone's life, you are a hero.
If you kill someone, you are a murderer.
And if you entomb people in cages, or minimize ones suffering due to their race or place of origin, if you consider yourself better than, or more deserving, if you think your angst and suffering can be compared to those who have been terrorized by systemic brutality, if you are blind to such brutality, or indifferent to its effects, you are a racist and you are a danger to this fragile institution we call a democracy — a place where all people are "equal." There is no doubt that the United States of America is a flawed and errant beacon, our history is pockmarked with the sin of arrogance, but that should never stop us from always taking measure what we do and say as a society in order to live up to what we are meant to be.
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