I was fully committed to ignoring President Trump’s final round of racist accusations against an African-American elected official and African-American activist and African-American journalist and an entire city of many African-Americans. I intended to walk past Trump’s latest violence and write about the self-destructive bickering of the Democratic presidential field, who chose to shame former vice president Joe Biden because of sin as an eligible, moderate liberal.
But I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s “The Cross and the Wailing Tree” off my shelf – a book designed to destroy laziness. Cone tells the case of a white crowd in Valdosta, Ga., In 1918 lynchting an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s furious wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then handing her over to the crowd, including women and children. According to one source, Mary was stripped, hung upside down on the ankles, soaked with gasoline and roasted to death. In the middle of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her child fell to the ground and was stamped to death. “
God help us. It is hard to write the words. This evil – the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder – is the worst spot, the greatest crime, in American history. It’s the thing that almost broke the nation. It is something that generations of Christians have proven to be cruel hypocrites. It is something that turned normal people into moral monsters, able to burn a grieving widow and kill her child.
For more than 300 years of routine atrocities – the slave ships, the branding, the separation of families, the beating, the lynching, the constant flood of humiliation, the racist advertisements for soap and toothpaste, the anti-black riots, the separation of buses and pools and schools and suburbs, the sunset cities, the kangaroo courts, the police dogs and water cannons, the church bombing, the cruel and minor tyranny of whites, fortified by the most prominent politicians in the country – during all this, none of the descendants of Europe was able to eradicate this evil. As James Baldwin said in 1963: “The only people in the country who currently believe in Christianity or in the country are the most despised minority therein.”
Racism is the fire that has left our country terribly deformed. It’s the beast that we try to keep locked up in the basement. When the president of the United States plays with that fire or breaks up that beast, it’s not just a political event, not just a normal day in the 2020 campaign. It’s a reason for shame. It is the violation of the counts of martyrs. It is obscene graffiti at the Lincoln Memorial. In the eyes of history, it is the betrayal – the betrayal – of Haynes and Mary Turner and their child. And all of this is done by an ignorant and arrogant narcissist who breathe new life into racist tropics for political gain, indifferent to the wreck he leaves behind, the wounds he tears.
Like, I suspect, many others, I find it difficult to regard rising racism as just one in a series of presidential crimes or another in a series of Republican errors. Racism is not just a mistake. The battlefield of Antietam is not just a piece of land. The Edmund Pettus bridge is not just a bridge. The balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel is not just another balcony. Since American history justifies some causes, it magnifies some crimes.
What does this all mean politically? It means that Trump’s division is getting worse, not better. He makes racist remarks, appeals to racist sentiments and ignites racist passions. The rationalization that he is not, deep down, really a racist has no meaning. Trump’s ongoing violations mean that much of his political base is driven by racist tropics and the language of white grievances. And it means – whatever their intention is – that those who trivialize, excuse or try to walk past these offenses are able to work.
Some political choices are not just stupid or rude. They represent the return of the cruelest and most dangerous passion of our country. Such racism accuses Trump. Considering racism as a typical or minor issue blames us.