When Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with a racist tirade against Mexicans, he began the short process of renormalizing the racist sentiments that white people had been taught to hide since integration started 60 years ago. He literally made it cool for white America to be openly racist again: In just over a year, his campaign and election have drastically undermined more than five decades of integrated racial “progress.”
Now, as Trump fills key administration positions with white nationalist-sympathizing power brokers like Steve Bannon as chief strategist and Jeff Sessions for attorney general, it is clear that the black middle class is in for a very harsh, rude awakening. Because everything we’ve been taught about “success” in this society and nearly every avenue we’ve used to achieve that success are now threatened by the same explicit racism that Trump rode into the White House.
Making white people feel comfortable has always played a role in our survival. On plantations, making them comfortable meant that we might delay torture, death or whatever punishment they were thinking of at the moment. During segregation, keeping white discomfort at bay meant avoiding or minimizing the racial violence of angry white mobs. But when integration began, black economic success began to be measured by how well we could integrate into white society, which meant that making white people comfortable was now one of the most viable paths to black economic sustainability. That was a mistake.
We see this phenomenon earliest in schools. Black students who excel at making white teachers comfortable tend to be the students who can show their intelligence in ways that white people can easily recognize. It doesn’t mean that they actually are any smarter than the other black students, but that their teachers (80 percent of whom are white women) just feel they are different (i.e., less threatening) from the rest. These students get access to gifted-and-talented classes and opportunities reserved for “special” black children who show “promise.” This system replicates itself throughout higher education and the workforce.
As a result, our entire economic-success model relies on centering whiteness and accessing the resources it provides, which means our most brilliant students risk becoming incapable of addressing black needs.
For example, many “successful” black business students learn economic theory but have no idea how much the black community spends annually. This means that they are ill-prepared to create economic models that capture and reinvest black dollars. Black bankers can work in highly regarded financial institutions, but most don’t set up financial service centers to help generate, protect and grow black wealth.
Successful black doctors can work in white-owned hospitals, but they may never build hospitals that focus on diseases that impact black lives the most. Black research scientists spend their careers becoming experts on issues important to white corporations but never get to use their expertise to explore issues related to us. Our best and brightest black workers can get jobs on Wall Street, but most can’t create jobs for anyone in the hood.
This all-white-everything approach to economic sustainability may have been fine (it wasn’t) when we had a government constrained by things like anti-discrimination laws and notions of superficial fairness. But that was before a candidate who was fully endorsed by white nationalist groups won the election and created a direct line of communication between white supremacists and the White House.
Now, because of the renewed surge of openly hostile racism stoked by Trump’s campaign, this economic model means that the black community will be one of the least prepared for what will come next.
Before Trump’s campaign, racism at work typically showed up as microaggressions: the “commonplace daily indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate racial slights and insults toward people of color.” If white folks let their racism step out of line, there were laws we could turn to for protection, like the Civil Rights Act. These laws were enforced by agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which interprets them and defends victims from discrimination.
After the election, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have reported that schools and the workplace are the two places reporting the highest number of hateful harassment and intimidation incidents.
It’s not that white people ever stopped being racist, but a delicate web of political correctness, the fear of being called a “racist” (which many hate more than actual racism) and a legal system that espoused a commitment to multiculturalism helped to keep those public displays of racism down to a level that most black people could tolerate.
In order for this system to work, however, black professionals had to play their part. Gaining access to white spaces and resources required us to leave our blackness at home when we went to work, attended work functions or otherwise interacted with white people. Each day, we put on “the mask”: the face we show white co-workers to prove we’re not angry, aggressive or any other word used to describe an emotional black person who makes white people uncomfortable.
But none of that will matter in a Trump era because the president-elect’s campaign has empowered the white community to finally be honest about how they really feel when it comes to race. If Jeff Sessions is confirmed as attorney general, his racist ideology will be in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A Trump-era EEOC will be in charge of evaluating claims of workplace discrimination. This means the legal framework that helps to keep workplace racism in check will vanish.
As a natural consequence, white people (whether they’re Ku Klux Klan members or merely harboring implicit bias) will be able to act on those feelings. Once civil rights protections at work fall, there will be no safety net wide enough to protect black workers or our economic security.
Remember, even under integration, white-owned corporations hired as few black people as the law required. Those same companies that can barely tolerate us now soon won’t have to hire any of us at all. We are entering an era where the very laws that protected us from racial discrimination may become unenforced and essentially nonexistent.
Malcolm X was prophetic when he said: “The white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of the community—control the housing; control the education; control the jobs; control the businesses—under the pretext that you want to integrate.”
The only option the black community will have left requires us to center black people as our solution and re-create a culturally grounded economic system based on meeting our own needs. Blacks are one of the largest buying groups, spending over $1 trillion annually. To protect our community from the threats that loom, we must turn that spending power into job and wealth generators.
According to Ron Busby, president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers, “There [are] only 1.9 million African-American businesses, but of the 1.9, 1.8 million have no employees. So we only really have 106,000 African-American businesses that have employees. We have to increase that number, and we have to do it with more young people going to work for small businesses in order for there to be production.”
Author Maggie Anderson (Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy) stated that 1 million jobs could be created if black households with incomes of $75,000 or more increased spending with black-owned businesses from 3 percent to 10 percent. This is far better than any governmental policy could ever hope to promise or achieve.
A Trump presidency means that the days of relying on government for legal protections from racism are over. But if we take this opportunity to re-create sustainable black streams of income, job and wealth creation, we may be able to advance farther than many dreamed imaginable. Thankfully, as Marcus Garvey noted, “When all else fails to organize the people, conditions will.” This new age of open racism may be just the mass organizing moment that allows our community to thrive.
Lurie Daniel Favors is an author and attorney and the general counsel at a racial-justice law center in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter.