My dad is a retired research librarian with a master's degree. My sister is a professor. My aunt is a retired psychologist. This isn't “black excellence.” This is black life, as it happens, right here in America. But Donald Trump doesn't see that, and neither do a lot of other people. So much of America thinks of black Americans as a monolith — erasing their achievements, and failures, and black lives.
In recent speeches in Milwaukee and Michigan, speeches ostensibly aimed at black voters, Trump declared that black people “don't have jobs” and are all living in unceasing poverty. These remarks were neither surprising nor unusual. Black Americans have long been considered to all be the same, and all uniquely different from other people, especially white people. Black Americans are believed to be invulnerable to pain. Black Americans can't swim. We aren't individual people; we are a grand unified stereotype: If some of us live in poverty, we all do. If some of us endure violence in our communities, we all do. If some of us engage in violent activities, we all do, and we are all placed under the same level of suspicion. Doesn't matter if you're an NBA athlete or a Harvard professor; even a United States senator gets stopped by police, because before being a senator, he's a black man, and thus perhaps a criminal.
White people can be individuals. White success is persona; white failure is self-contained. We don't compare the achievements of a Michael Phelps with a Warren Buffett. We don’t weep for the unique criminality of white people after the arrest of a white criminal. White people living in poverty, facing uncertain futures, and reacting to their circumstances as flawed humans do are viewed as complex stories of unique individuals. Not so with black Americans. Black success is treated as either highly unusual or extremely suspect, either evidence of #blackgirlmagic or an affirmative action hire. A black person getting into that school, or getting that job, or winning the presidency is suspicious, even subject to conspiracy theorizing. And black failure, and black poverty, and black crime are indictments of all black people, a verdict rendered against all of us because someone else, somewhere else, fucked up.
In the near term, Trump's “black monolith” conceptualization, though not unusual, will do nothing to reach black voters who could possibly be pushed toward his party by real, genuine concerns about poverty and inequality. Dr. Leah Rigueur, a public policy professor at Harvard who has written extensively about black conservatives, told MTV News that the people to whom she's spoken about Trump say, “maybe Donald Trump should be listening to black people instead of lecturing them, and maybe he should be meeting with black people so that he can talk about black life in nuanced ways.” That's unlikely, given that Trump's appeals to black voters are largely being made to validate white perceptions. And given his horrendous history with black Americans and the racially charged undercurrent that seems to guide his campaign, his polling with black people will not improve.
In the long term, the perception of the black community as homogenous — with “leaders” and a group identity that seems determined by someone other than ourselves — will probably remain. Black people will continue to be judged on the basis of headlines about black crime and statistics about black unemployment, while their actual, individual lives — their successes, failures, and everything in between — will be erased. Someone will still be surprised when they meet a black person who has gone to college or written poetry or gone into accounting because they just really like numbers. Someone will still get chased (or worse) by police because another black person, somewhere else, did something wrong, and rendered all of us suspicious.
Black people are doctors and lawyers and real estate agents, and artists and pharmaceutical salespeople and, yes, sometimes unemployed. Black people have foibles and make mistakes. Black people are people, first and foremost. And when we lose that, we lose everything else.