America is in a new era of reconstruction. And, as such, we are at both a moral and political nadir that mandates a “self-correction.” The end result will reflect whose new reconstruction America is moving toward. Right now, it’s looking like an emerging Trumpian era of disaffected whites and other citizens.
This moment in time has been both jarring yet cathartic as I live in Pennsylvania. Indeed, in Central Pennsylvania, one of the few Black families residing in the area. I take a beautiful drive to work along the legendary Susquehanna River. The view of the river on one side and farm land on the other has always placed me in a wonderful frame of mind, until August, 2016. At that time, there was an emersion of Trump signs that seemed to grow in number during the day, resulting in higher numbers on my evening commute. Homes which truly seemed to belong in Mississippi, replete with abandoned cars and collapsing roofs all displayed their lack of understanding regarding what was truly happening. The one thing they all shared however, were large and looming signs which signaled (at least to me) that the inhabitants of these dwellings were indeed supporting candidates that did not support them or their interests.
America has done this before. The last attempted “Reconstruction era” in America took place immediately following the civil war. In rebuilding this country, nearly 2 million free and emancipated African Americans participated in shaping and influencing the economic and political life of the Old South. In a country at a time attempting to “self-correct” for its centuries-long indignities and outright disregard for black life, two African American males - Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce- were popularly elected as senators from Mississippi, the latter being a landowner and slave owner.
I am familiar with the intrigue which shaped our election dialogue and shocked many Americans in 2016 and the need for self-correction as it has happened before. Plainly stated, “the majority of whites will tolerate advances of blacks when it is in the interest of middle class whites.” An example would be the motivation for education of the freed slave. Education was required in order for the freed citizens to acculturate into their new roles as productive members of society independent of slave ownership. Here we see the beginnings of the insidious nature of separate but equal policies but also interest convergence as it was in the interest of white folks to educate these masses in a way which served the white minority.
Following the Civil War, the need to rebuild the South was the primary motivation for the founding of HBCUs. Many believed that industrial education would help the former slave fight their inferiority and lazy tendencies. While some well-meaning citizens, financiers and missionaries may not have believed in separate but equal, they also had other motivators. These schools would train the new work force for the New South!
Brown v Board was another example of interest convergence. During the Cold War, there was mounting pressure from the international community for America to fulfill its’ democracy which they lauded over the world. Indeed, it was a moment of ‘practice what you preach’ or ‘get your house in order’. How could we dictate democracy to others when we had such deeply embedded inequities between races in housing, education, healthcare and jobs? Our fight for equality was indeed televised and the world was watching. To gain a bit more credibility, it appears that Brown’s intended outcome was to provide equality in education for the world to see. Little black children boarding buses with white children. Being taught in the same classroom. The unintended consequences was the perilous journeys and hate filled moments from boarding the bus until the return home of these brave, black children: being in classes where teachers reviled them and wouldn’t provide the equity in education that was originally sought.
In America’s attempt to “self-correct” the backlash to reconstruction gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan and Black Codes, illustrating that white privilege finds ways to rear its ugly head by any means necessary. At the close of the 19th century, the south needed to be re-built. Northern philanthropists supported the establishment of HBCUs from a desire to control the industrial revolution and the need to provide skilled labor to its many ventures. In other words, industrialists and opportunists seized an opportunity to capitalize on the destruction of the south and the needs of its most vulnerable citizens which were poor whites and freed slaves. This new venture of educating former slaves in preparation for industrial needs was indeed a form of interest convergence. Separate education was not required if in fact these newly freed citizens were citizens indeed. It is with great thought that one designs a system to perpetrate equality and integration while providing permanent inequality and difference.
White nostalgia, the notion of “the good old days” is perceived to be a form of self-correction for many whites. Trump’s rise to power and prominence is one which could have been predicted, regardless of how ridiculous, incorrect, offensive and unapologetically mean spirited he is; he is forgiven because African Americans been down this road before. This candidate speaks the language of greedy white men. He speaks in a way that will rally his troops who have been in a state of resignation and perceived disaffection.
Trump has become the long awaited white savior for the disenfranchised. The undereducated white voter who supported Trump, believes what they are told and are looking for someone to bear the blame for their lack of advancement. They talk about establishment politics which haven’t benefitted Black voters without great pressure or interest convergence being in play. They speak of going back to those days when America was great. Going back is not ideal, especially back to Civil Rights era, Black Codes, Jim Crow or Slavery, take your pick!
Not unlike the Reconstruction South, poor whites believed that their position in life was indeed superior to Blacks and therefore against their own interest, support Trump and mimic his violence. He supports and encourages violence for himself and others reminiscent of the early 20th century which was arguably the nadir of race relations. Trump is massaging an area of the white psyche which yearns for his touch. For centuries of slavery, plantation owners and wealthy whites secluded their wealth and promoted fear in order to maintain their most lucrative asset, black flesh. Fear existed among the white majority that providing blacks the right to vote would bring unknown problems. We saw this fear again during the Civil Rights era with a self-corrective moment from the segregationist politics and rhetoric of George Wallace.
Fast forward to today. Trump represents a call to yesteryear. He understands that one can capitalize on the discontent of the middle class, poor and undereducated, while blaming vulnerable communities for their problems. Too much immigration, too many social programs, big government, too many people on public assistance, too many African Americans attending colleges reflective of their choice and ability (thank you Judge Scalia) and free or affordable healthcare, and now, gays can get married. This is the end of civilization as they know it to be. The call to the old days means that whites need to fear blacks as in antebellum America. This lesson is well taught by the wealthy and Trump as they protect their income and legacy and manipulate poor and middle class disaffected whites.
I say this in earnest…we have been here before. Plessy, Black Codes, Civil Rights movement, you name it. America periodically needs a course correction. Someone has to create dissonance against the hypocrisy of our implied constitutional rights. Trump understands that his work is the sacred work of upholding the morals of the founders of our country…slave holders!
Many call the election of this person who flagrantly displays his wealth and mental illness with equal facility as white-lash. It isn’t! It is America correcting her course. He needed the support of white Americans. Probably, people you see daily voted for him. People in your circle, who have quietly held on to their racist views and values and obstructionist politics. There has always been a disinclination to stay the course of justice for all, despite what we are told or what we recite. We were surprised that America was unwilling to continue down a road towards civility, justice, equity and other values we believed America shared with us. Let’s look at the nomination of Jeff Sessions. As a State Senator in the Great State of Alabama (my home state by the way), Sessions as a senator still supports the celebration of Robert E Lee Day which is the same day that most of the world celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, the same day. Alabama and its backwards cousins, Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas can’t seem to get this right, and why would we expect them to? Robert E Lee is a hero of the south and the confederacy. Indeed, he would be a hero to Jeff Sessions. Why should we expect him to do a better job for all Americans than he did for Alabamians as he couldn’t manage to separate these two vastly opposite days of remembrance?
So, my friends, this is a place we have visited and indeed lived for centuries. The place of self-correction. This, I repeat is NOT White-Lash. America and history are repeating and correcting her course. But, take heart as we are resilient. This too shall pass!
Armenta Hinton is an active presenter with a broad range of experience that includes 15 years working in Germany and England. She has been an administrator, teacher and performer and has served on numerous arts boards including the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Opera Company. Dr. Hinton is co-editor of “Persistence and Memory,” a collection of essays on diversity with reflections written by Derald Wing Sue, and she contributed a chapter to the book “Preserving HBCU’s Million Dollar Legacy” Clarity Press, 2015. Hinton earned a bachelor's degree in music history and piano from Alabama State University and studied at Roosevelt University’s Chicago Musical College. She earned her post graduate certificate in psychotherapy from Birmingham City University in England and her doctoral degree in Leadership and Change from Antioch University. She is currently the Equity and Title IX Officer for Elizabethtown College.