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White People Problems

Trump's rise signals that "woke" white allies must challenge racism more directly

The key event in the Broadway hit Hamilton occurs in 1804, when Vice-President Aaron Burr fatally wounds Alexander Hamilton during a duel. But the most dramatic moment of Friday's performance came after it was over. The next vice-president was in the audience that night, and the man portraying Burr had something to say to him.

Actor Brandon Victor Dixon welcomed Mike Pence and asked him to hear him out. "We, sir, are the diverse America," Dixon said, "who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us." Dixon took pains to be diplomatic when speaking to the former Indiana governor, a man who most certainly didn't deserve it. Pence, whose record is pockmarked with anti-LGBTQ discrimination and an HIV outbreak he helped enable, was attending a Broadway show whose leading man, Javier Munoz, is gay and HIV-positive.

Critics on the left have called the Hamilton episode a distraction from Donald Trump's burgeoning scandals: the way he's already using the presidency for personal profit and the white nationalist he hired as his chief strategist, just to name a couple. The way the president-elect responded to Dixon's statement and the crowd's boos seemed expertly designed to catch the eye of the press. He made it sound as if Pence were the victim of a hate crime. In a series of tweets — what else? — he labeled Dixon's remarks as harassment, mocked him for not memorizing said remarks, and ordered him to apologize, exclamation point.

Boom, front-page story.

It was particularly rich to see Trump demanding a safe space for Mike Pence, using the very same social-justice vocabulary that his supporters have habitually mocked. But what he did mattered. It was a reminder that dissent, particularly from people of color, will be seen as a threat by the incoming administration — and it was a reminder of the pressing need to prepare for that. The next president of the United States has made it clear that he primarily views those of us who look like the Hamilton cast — that "diverse America" Dixon spoke of — as a threat. Even when we simply demand to be seen and included as Americans, we are given the same advice Burr gave to Hamilton: talk less, smile more.

Trump doesn't want to hear from me, Dixon, or anyone who looks like us. He made that clear during the campaign, when he only listened to the voice of a nearly monochromatic, male-dominated electorate who see American identity undergoing a forceful takeover. (For Pete's sake, they even have black and Latino guys playing the Founding Fathers now!) This is a group of people not so much “anxious” about anything as mundane as economic security or global trade as they are about a perceived threat to white identity. "American" has meant "white" for so long that we are facing some kind of violent reaction as that changes. Author Toni Morrison explained this flawlessly in The New Yorker after the election, arguing sardonically that white voters' hyperbolic reaction to racial advancement "suggests the true horror of lost status." The fragility she describes may be the principal reason why Trump won.

White feelings often trump black pain, pardon the pun — so how do we deal with this? A Stanford study released in April found that "Miami voters shifted their attitudes toward transgender individuals and maintained those changed positions for 3 months" after they were engaged on the issue through door-to-door canvassing by trained advocates. Vox's German Lopez expanded on that conclusion after the election, arguing that calling people "racist" doesn't help reduce racial bias, but that a frank, brief conversation would. That's fine. After all, I subscribe to the Jay Smooth school of thinking on this: Calling a person "racist" as opposed to labeling their deeds as such gives them an easy way to ignore you.

But these conversations need to go further. Of course, I shouldn't have to depend upon someone to relate to me in order for him or her to recognize my humanity, but "should" doesn't have much to do with it. And we're about to have a president whose battery is powered by cultural resentment about identity. He is hiring bigots left and right, is sending valentines to white nationalists, and has a long history of personal bias and antipathy toward people of color. Trump's supporters shouldn't just understand who marginalized people are, or be talked to as if they may someday vote Democratic. First and foremost, they need to grasp what they've done to nonwhite Americans with their votes.

The Hamilton drama reminds us that Trump also treats pleas for equality as something for him to exploit, and for his flock to fear. His voters, whether they share that attitude or not, certainly enable it. They aren't listening to people who look like me, or like Dixon, nor are they ever likely to. The responsibility for reaching them isn't on us. It’s squarely on white people.

Hillary Clinton understood this. While she made the mistake of assuming she had support from predominantly white Midwestern communities that had voted for Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee centered people of color in a way no other presidential candidate had done before, and that includes Obama. Seeing the Mothers of the Movement, black women who lost children to cops or guns, on the trail for her served as a constant reminder of the scars left behind by racial injustice — and that's something that probably didn't sit well with voters who may like their black coworker, but still think Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin got what was coming to them. Her failings in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania aside, I still think that Clinton was right to tell white Americans to lead conversations on race, even if she proved less than convincing.

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Seeing as that approach failed to deliver Clinton the presidency, there are some panicky calls for Democrats to pivot away from identity politics altogether. Or, at least, from the identity politics that illuminate the struggles of people who aren't white. Mark Lilla, a humanities professor at Columbia, argued in the New York Times that the liberal "obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored." This not only blames the victim, but rebukes those who are actually trying to fight racial bias. Diversity is becoming an even more pressing priority in an America that's only growing less white, but that isn’t a problem to “solve.” It is an emerging reality that resentful white voters refuse to accept. Trump's election lets them postpone that reckoning.

This is why white liberals in particular, especially those with Trump voters in their families, need to step up. I'm not talking about performing solidarity by sharing emotional "How could this happen?!?" Facebook posts, or by wearing a safety pin on their lapels. The unending competition to prove one's "wokeness" is a hindrance to actual progress. We’re seeing Trump and his people float the idea of religious registries and internment camps, yet I fear too many white people will act like it would be too difficult to talk to their uncle over Thanksgiving dinner about why he voted for Trump. It may feel awkward — but imagine being Muslim or undocumented or gay or black, then talk to me about being uncomfortable.

For all the empathy Trump's supporters have received even after his victory, they — and, frankly, some white liberals — still have a lot to learn about the concept. Some might argue, erroneously, that the term "racial equality" implies that civil rights are a zero-sum game — but folks who voted for that charlatan need to grasp that they'll be just as free when others are, too. Right now, the individuals whose lives are endangered by Trump take precedence over yet another lament for the so-called "white working class." Sure, a modicum of diplomacy is required, but if white people don't start talking to their own, they risk minimizing a problem that’s on them to solve.

No one has to worry about winning an election right now, so Clinton's example isn't a bad one to follow to get started. She not only mentioned systemic racism, but also challenged white people to recognize their complicity in it. Sparking empathy will help, but go further. Enforce accountability while you're at it. And start today.