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Ain’t That America

The reaction to Trump’s win? White supremacy on parade.

“Sup niggers,” read the first message sent from the GroupMe alias “Daddy Trump.” It was the first of many threats and insults texted last Friday to black students at the University of Pennsylvania, most of them freshmen, three days after an alumnus of that institution became president-elect of the United States. The GroupMe messages included images of lynchings of African-Americans and calendar invitations for future ones, as if murders were merely meetings to attend. The reasoning behind targeting black Ivy Leaguers in the wake of the election, I'd bet, wasn't honoring Donald Trump. It was more about preventing the next Barack Obama. Whoever did this sought out budding black excellence, and struck.

The racist notes originated from college students in Oklahoma, one of whom has already been suspended. Penn's administration and alumni responded quickly, but the damage had been done. One black student tweeted screenshots of the offensive GroupMe threats, adding that “I am petrified and all I want to do is cry.” Penn Law research assistant Calvary Rogers wrote on Facebook, “I feel sick to my stomach. I don't feel safe.”

I had a similar feeling as a black freshman at Penn in 1993, when I and several other students in my dormitory received our own racist threats. That was before GroupMe, Twitter, and Facebook all existed — so I got to hear an actual voice call me “nigger.” The internet has given bigots so many new hiding places since then. But those same bigots will have a place in the sun during a Trump administration. After all, in a little more than two months, the president-elect is poised to back them up with the might of the federal government. I mean, he appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart and Trump's campaign, as his White House chief strategist. We know what's up.

It is disappointing that “ Stop it” is the only real rebuke the president-elect has offered to date about the other 200-plus occurrences of harassment and intimidation that have been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center since Election Day. That is what he said during his first televised interview since the election, and it was utterly meaningless. Most of those incidents of harassment have been directed against anyone who isn't a straight white guy praising Jesus; I've personally heard several stories about people essentially being told to get the hell out of Trump's America. They include everything from “build the wall” chants to swastika graffiti to schoolyard threats from other children. One parent reported that her 12-year-old black daughter was told by a boy, “Now that Trump is president, I'm going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.”

We'll get more of that in the coming days. There is a planned parade in North Carolina on December 3 in honor of Trump's victory. In a state victimized by voter suppression more than most, that would seem like so much sophomoric trolling if the parade weren't being staged by the Ku Klux Klan. They know they've won a big round for white supremacy, and are observing that victory in the only way terrorists know how: by terrorizing. They know that the browning America, despite this setback, is still gaining on them. That's why a lot of Trump backers are celebrating by intimidating, even if they aren't wearing white hoods and dressed up like Jim Crow ghosts.

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Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, by a lot. It's estimated that she may have had a larger margin than Al Gore, Richard Nixon, or John F. Kennedy, two of whom also won their Electoral Colleges. So we've just had a considerable minority of the electorate use their most essential franchise, the vote, to remind anyone with brown skin, who isn't a man, who isn't Christian, who wasn't born here, and anyone who occupies any other marginalized identity, that they will never be completely “American.” From now on, whenever someone uses “we” to refer to Americans, they'd better be a lot more specific.

So what happens now? Whether Trump follows through on all of his rhetoric and enacts actual crazy-racist-evil policy as president, who knows? Like those he inspires, Trump feeds off of vengeance and anger. So if, say, Black Lives Matter pisses him off, he might forget about the wall for a bit. If Latinos upset him enough, he might take a break from demonizing Muslims. Young voters, transgender people, Asian-Americans, and other groups whose majorities didn't choose him could also be targeted. We'll all draw his fire, and that of his toxic flock.

Calling out this systemic, White House–sponsored intolerance will have limited effect; we're already seeing many in the press and in political leadership being a little too eager to regard any of this as normal. Liberals in Washington need to quickly offer new, energetic leadership completely independent of those who directed Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee straight into the dirt. But electoral victories aren't the most urgent matters before us.

The first priority must be protection — not just of the most liberal gains of the last eight years, but the physical and emotional protection of the millions of Americans in the crosshairs of Trump's nativist movement. Those who live in relative safety can do a great service by reminding their fellow white people that the humanity of Trump's targets remains paramount. We've been screaming out to the world to affirm our humanity, and have yet to be heard. (Perhaps white privilege has its own more powerful frequency.)

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Many of us will face real threats; many are already facing them. Everything from legal abortion to press freedoms will be challenged by the Trump people; they already have been. And those of us opposed to Trump's autocratic, regressive agenda will resist him. As we already are.

I cannot predict how this will play out, nor how peaceful it will (or will not) be. This man's ascendance to the White House will irrevocably change many millions of lives for the worse, likely throughout the world. But as I try to reckon why our country and democracy are being forced to face this test, I think back to how this Trump moment started. We can talk all we wish about economic issues, Trump's denial of climate change, and so-called threats to “religious freedom,” and we should. They all intersect with identity in significant ways. But we can't ignore the impetus for Trump's political career, which also served as the reason why identity took over in 2016: President Obama.

This election began and ended, largely, as a referendum on President Obama and his legitimacy. After the chief birther's victory, the first black president will be training the unqualified white man hired to take over his job. The varied indignities Obama suffers are nothing less than a message to those of us uppity enough to think we could thrive in this country. Or to even simply exist. It is too much, to them, for us to just be.

It's as Sofia said in The Color Purple, the line echoed by Kendrick Lamar: “All my life I had to fight.” We want the fight to end before our lives do, but this is also the story of America: working to build a nation we may never see. Trump's election forces us, more than ever, to embrace that idea.

I didn't think we'd be here after Election Day, either, but perhaps I should've. I knew before that caller said I was a “nigger” during my freshman year that my country hated us: men who look like me. Women, too. Anyone but a cisgender white man, really. But this much? Yes, this much. Never before in my lifetime has America been this naked, with its inadequacies left out and impossible to ignore. The election is over, but now the real fight is here.