This weekend I had the misfortune to read Roxane Gay’s recent New York Times op-ed, in which she reflects on Charlottesville, Va., and waxes poetic about how much she wishes Hillary Clinton had won. She writes:
I keep thinking about how different things would be if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. I was, like so many of us, wildly overconfident about her chances. Her presidency was a certainty in my mind and in my heart. And then, it wasn’t. Instead, it is 2017 and white supremacists no longer feel the need to wear hoods to hide their racism and anti-Semitism. I am a black woman and I live in a country where the president does not disavow racism.
I can’t believe people—especially black people—are still using this moment to push a tired, useless narrative about how much better things would have been if corporate Democrats remained in power. What a shame.
Let me be the one to break the news: Hillary Rodham Clinton is not and never has been our savior. Hillary would not have saved us.
While it is understandable to react to the current racial crises with horror, it is bizarre and ultimately unproductive to conclude that things would have been significantly better under a Hillary Clinton presidency. Gay and others on the left are perpetuating a neoliberal white-savior myth—the delusion that Clinton would have swooped in and saved us from the white supremacists in our midst. It’s obvious that the same woman who called black children superpredators, the same woman who co-signed racist policies that decimated black families and used racist tropes to attack Barack Obama in 2008, would not have ushered in some kind of racial utopia or led us to the proverbial mountaintop.
More importantly, the simple fact is that we don’t have to guess what would have happened “if Hillary had won.” I can tell you exactly what would have happened because we have strong evidence from recent history. If Hillary had won, the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans would have continued to deny the fact that white supremacy still exists in the United States. If Hillary had won, the critical insights of Ferguson, Mo., youths, Black Lives Matter activists and indigenous people standing up at Standing Rock would have continued to be sidelined. If Hillary had won, millions of “liberals” (especially elites) would still be sleeping, tucked comfortably in their delusions of inclusion. And the painful realities of white supremacy that are now being openly discussed and confronted would have been swept under the rug of respectable, bipartisan denial.
We would not be better off with widespread ignorance (or apathy) about the sleeper cells of white supremacists infiltrating every sphere of power. While many contend that Donald Trump has “enabled” white supremacists, the truth is that our whole entire society has enabled white supremacists since its inception. The idea that Trump magically created or single-handedly enabled white supremacists is as historically shortsighted as it is politically inaccurate. If anything, his presidency is helping to wake people up to ongoing realities.
Trump did not magically create white supremacy or fundamentally alter the racial power structure of this country. White supremacist groups, long absorbed into (and tolerated by) the majority population, surged under Barack Obama’s presidency. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll shows that nearly 1 in 10 adults, or 22 million U.S. citizens, “call it acceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.” And that’s just the percentage of people who were willing to admit that they embrace white supremacy. A 2016 survey demonstrated that about a third of Trump supporters described African Americans as less intelligent than whites—and about one-fifth of Hillary Clinton supporters expressed the same racist view.
Sure, thousands of racist extremists might not have felt empowered to take to the streets without an overtly racist president But let’s face it: These people (and their moderate white enablers) would have still been spreading cancerous views, making covert discriminatory decisions and helping to oppress people of color under a Hillary Clinton presidency. But apathy and denial would have continued to prevail under the banner of “liberal progress.”
And while Clinton did give lip service to “systemic racism” during the Democratic National Convention last year, the fact remains that she has yet to take full ownership of her role (and that of her political party) in perpetuating the very same systematic racism she ostensibly denounced. As Gloria Wekker demonstrates in her brilliant book White Innocence, white populations across the globe are socialized to deny or minimize their role in maintaining racism—and Clinton is no exception.
Many people still haven’t learned the basic lesson of the 2016 election: Over 60 million people voted for an overt racist endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan because we live in a racist society. The white supremacists who are openly marching have been tolerated and normalized by white communities for generations. Each new day brings fresh empirical evidence that while some Republicans claim to disapprove of Trump’s open defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville, they don’t disapprove quite enough to stop supporting him.
In other words, millions of people in this country, most of them white, either openly embrace white supremacy or openly embrace politicians who openly embrace white supremacy.
While I, too, am horrified by Trump’s presidency and all that it reveals about our nation, it is a good and necessary thing that widespread attention is finally being focused on the enduring reality of white supremacy. We now have a unique opportunity to see and name systematic racism clearly and think strategically about the kinds of social and political transformations that will be needed to create anti-racist change.
Those with a platform (especially but not only black intellectuals) should use it to help the public understand that our society has been enabling white supremacy for centuries. Now is not the time to wish for a Hillary Clinton presidency or to lapse into white saviorism. Instead, anti-racists of all backgrounds should seize this moment to challenge the pervasive racial denial that still exists across the political spectrum and build the collective action we need to create a more just society.
We’ve got work to do, and Hillary Clinton sho’ ain’t gonna do it for us.