We Shall Overcome

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
– Proverbs, 31:8-9

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
– H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920

A South politician preaches to the poor white man “You got more than blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
– Bob Dylan, Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016


Last month, I attended an awards ceremony in Washington D.C. to honor a friend. I sat next to a prominent African-American Christian minister and leader. Invariably, the conversation turned to Trump.

“He’s going to win,” the minister said.

“I can’t believe that,” I replied.

He went on to explain that the reason Trump would win is that he has ignited a fire of resentment in the hearts of millions in the hard-hit areas of America: “These are people who were always told, ‘Don’t complain; at least you’re not a N….’ Well, they’re realizing they actually are N…s, and that’s why Trump is going to win. He’s promising to restore their America, an America where at least they aren’t N…s.”

It was a sobering conversation. I still did not believe that a man, who appeared to publicly mimic a reporter’s palsy, labeled Mexican migrants rapists and criminals, and, in the most explicit language, boasted of groping women, could ever be elected president—not in the United States, surely. Well, I was wrong. He is about to be seated in the highest office of the land.

History is rife with injustice, persecution, and blatant discrimination. If the improbable internment for Muslims, Mexicans, or another maligned minority comes, it won’t be the first time in relatively recent history that large numbers of people have been rounded up because of their religion or ethnicity. But that is a highly unlikely scenario because we are not the people we were when the Japanese were interned in the U.S. or the Jews in Germany. Great strides have been made since then.

Here in America, we witnessed a major struggle over racial equality and civil rights being waged for over two hundred years, which came to fruition in the late 1950s and early 1960s; we have not reached the end of that struggle—far from it—but we made plenty of headway, and we owe it to all those who lost their lives in that struggle not to fall into despair. Last week’s election is a temporary setback, not much more.

My mother joined the struggle for social justice in the 1950s; she organized, she marched, and she opened her house to others to plan their efforts. Her mantra was “We Shall Overcome,” so much so that we sang it at her funeral this past August. Every Election Day, my mother would call to remind me to vote. She believed in the process but felt it only worked if enough people participated or were willing to work to make it better.

America has never been perfect, not even close; it has always been a work in progress, an ongoing pursuit towards forming “a more perfect union.” We must continue the struggle for a just and equitable society, even as we celebrate the major milestones of our progress. Eight years ago, we elected an African-American as our nation’s president, a man whose father was born into East African poverty and whose mother was of English ancestry and born in Kansas. Nevertheless, a majority of Americans, including many from the Red states, voted him into office. On a frigid January morning in 2009, I stood with Imam Zaid Shakir in Washington D.C. watching Obama being sworn into office; we had come not to support Democrats or even Obama but to celebrate a major milestone in overcoming bigotry: the first elected Black person inaugurated as head of state in a major Western country.

Soon enough, though, things turned sour again. While supporters of Obama point to his many achievements despite an obstructionist Congress, like most politicians, he made promises and turned out to be a disappointment. Not the least of Obama’s failures was that the “banksters” (a term coined during the Roosevelt Administration following the Wall Street Crash of 1929) were let off scot-free for bringing the global economy to the brink of collapse in 2008 as a result of their unethical economic schemes.

There is no doubt that today, much is deeply wrong, and people are angry and frustrated. The “public debt” in the United States is now more than $18 trillion; we have an economy based upon warmongering and financial instruments of mass destruction; and the decline in manufacturing has laid waste to cities across the nation.

Many say they are shocked that people, especially the uneducated working class Americans, voted for Donald Trump; but a few visionaries are shocked at those who are shocked. Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, predicted in July that Trump would win. Moore is well aware of a world most Americans in the East or West Coasts are oblivious to: the world of blue-collar Americans with simple home-spun values, people perceived as country bumpkins and Rust Belt rabble, who don’t understand political correctness and couldn’t afford arugula even if they knew what it was. They don’t relate to Beyoncé or Jay Z, but they cheer the angry rants of Ted Nugent, a gun-toting rocker. Trump’s outsider status and his talk of upending the Washington establishment resonated well in the heartland that New York and California forgot existed, a world populated with Vietnam veterans, hunters, and the poorly educated. Many Trump supporters are decent, hard-working people whose lives have been shattered, families broken, jobs evaporated, and who now live in derelict cities and towns, all but forgotten by Washingtonians.

I don’t believe the Trump victory is a victory of the Republican Party; it is the first Independent Party victory since George Washington. Let us not forget that the majority of the Republican leadership denounced Trump; many didn’t even show up for the Republican National Convention, including the former Republican presidents. Trump infiltrated the splintered Republican Party and ran as a Republican but, in reality, had no allegiance to any party. He represented a segment of the population that identified itself as traditional, conservative Americans, who, because of a lack of education and articulation, have been left behind. Trump led an insurgency, a Spartacus-like revolt of the slaves, people who felt they had been ignored or denigrated by the powers that be in both the political and corporate worlds. They have been angry and embittered, and they lined up behind Trump because he was the only one who was aiming for the ramparts. Let us not forget also that many of those who voted for him were Democrats and Independents. His was not a victory of a political party but a victory of people fed up with the political parties.

This is not a time for fear. We know that something is deeply wrong, and there is a lot of anger and confusion. But too much is deeply right for us to despair at this point. Our youth largely reject racism and sexism and embrace idealism and hope; they want a better world. There has never been more tolerance for minorities in American history than now. Our nation’s laws against discrimination and for equality are unparalleled in the world. Immigrant Muslims, like all other immigrants, came to America yearning to breathe free, and most have flourished here and love this country. A great African-American Muslim leader led the prayer at the Democratic National Convention, and another Muslim did so at the Republican National Convention. The DNC is even seriously considering an African-American Muslim congressman to head their party.

We cannot allow the divide-and-conquer strategy to pull us further apart now, not at a time when we have never been closer together. It is important for us to recognize that many good-hearted people voted for Trump and many for Clinton; the same is true of people who voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.

The racist backlash that has emerged before and after the election is a fringe element. We live in a time where we consume, gluttonously and indiscriminately, what is fed through the media and the internet—where all that is negative and dark is magnified grossly and unjustly. Yes, an African-American woke up with the N-word painted on his car with Trump’s name next to it; yes, some Muslim women have been accosted and harassed; yes, some LGBTQ people have been attacked; yes, an elderly White man with a Trump sticker was dragged from his car and brutally beaten by a group of hooligans. This is all true, but it is far from the norm; yet if one watches the litany of these assaults online, it is easy to conclude that the world has been turned upside down; and if we dwell on it, it will depress us.

Life on earth is an ebb and flow, contraction and expansion. For people in many places around the world, life is not going very well. Here in the West, we tend to be a very self-indulgent people. It helps to place things in perspective if we, for instance, look at Syrian refugees fleeing and risking their lives to find shelter in places where they are unwelcomed, despite their necessitous conditions. What we are now facing in America is the result of a free and fair election, a result decades in the making, a result caused by sheer neglect of the plight of millions of working class people whose middle class lives have been eroding, whose children are addicted to opioids and methamphetamines, whose daily dose of television is the most degraded entertainment imaginable, and whose schooling is some of the worst in the industrialized world.

And while our population is ill-informed, the majority are decent people who are fair when informed and generous when needs are presented to them. They are also working harder than any other people to overcome the historical wrongs of their nation’s history. Trump is not the biggest problem our nation faces; we need to begin with healing and with hope for the future.

To despair is self-indulgent. For the sake of all who have struggled before us, we must not now give in to despair, fear, or intimidation. Now is the time to realize that we have too much work to do, not protesting, not lighting fires, not saying, “Trump is not my president.” He is, and that is how our system works: by accepting the results and moving on. Now we have to work to make sure our educational, political, and scientific institutions, which are some of the finest in the world, are protected and perfected. We are the majority, not the haters.

Our faith teaches us to have a good opinion of people, and that should include those who voted for Trump. Our faith also teaches us to work together to address everyone’s needs. We cannot allow the paralysis of fear to overcome us. There are those in our country who will use race and class to divide us. Peoples of color must resist this “divide and conquer” strategy. Now that a majority of White people reject racism for the first time in its long and tragic history, we cannot allow the minority—ironically in this case the White racists—to stoke the embers of a dying flame of fanatical hatred of the other. We must maintain our faith in the future and fight the cynicism and despair that is gripping those who don’t remember history. Don’t be a pawn in their game. Reject the race-baiting, celebrate the progress, and work to bring people together under a banner of brotherhood and sisterhood, united in a struggle that goes on.