By Simone N. Durham
“I hate to say it, but I almost think the movement would be better off in the long run if he wins.”
These are words I was shocked to hear come out of my own mouth in a conversation about Trump and the 2020 presidential election in June, 2020. At the time, we were in the midst of the largest wave of #BlackLivesMatter protest since the movement’s emergence in 2013. Both scholars and activists expressed that this wave was unique in its size and power. It propelled BLM to the status of the largest movement in U.S. history. Many argued that this moment marked the start of an unparalleled push for racial justice – one of such magnitude in comparison to past efforts that it could be the tipping point for antiracist activism that would finally lead to real change. But with the election looming and people framing Biden and Harris as the obvious choice (compared to Trump) for those invested in the fight racial justice, I still had concerns about what that outcome might mean for #BlackLivesMatter. Time and time again in interviews I have conducted with Black millennials about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, respondents have expressed a lack of hope for achieving racial equity and eradicating white supremacy in this country. As a sociologist acutely aware of the embedded and structural nature of racism, it’s often hard for me to feel hope for a future free from racism as well. And as the BLM protests of summer 2020 proliferated at the same time as discussions about racial politics and the 2020 election intensified, I found myself at a loss as to what electoral outcome I felt would actually propel the movement and the change it seeks forward to fruition.
The Trump presidency sent shockwaves through the United States, and those waves indiscriminately crashed down on groups marginalized along racial, ethnic, citizenship, gender, sexuality, and economic lines. Racism was a central feature of Trump’s rhetoric and action, bringing issues to the surface that colorblind racism had worked to largely obscure in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement. Support for Biden as Trump’s 2020 opponent rested squarely on the idea that these two candidates differed greatly in their stance on race and racism in the U.S. I would never deny that racism under Trump has swelled to disturbing prominence. In fact, I have vehemently argued the same many times, both in my academic work, on social media, and in private conversations. But I still shared the skepticism of some Black activists and voters about whether the election of Biden would do much to address racial issues in tangible ways. On the one hand, I knew that a win for the Democratic party would create a political environment in which pushes for antiracist political reforms would be taken more seriously and have better chances of success. On the other, I also feared that instead of further strengthening the BLM movement, a Democratic win could make it lose momentum.
I feared that racist whites would be outraged by the loss and double down on their resistance efforts. The racism on display at the January 6th capitol riots demonstrated that at least one of my fears had become a reality. While as activist Kimberly Jones has famously said, America and white people are “lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge,” these riots demonstrated that the same cannot be said for the other side. The racism exhibited at the capitol riots and other events throughout the Trump presidency sinisterly showed that revenge is exactly what white supremacists will and are seeking in response to any loss of dominance or power.
I also feared that in the wake of a Trump loss, the increased diversity of the recent protests would wane and that white liberals would return to business as usual. In other words, back to colorblind racism we would go. Critical race theoryteaches us that one of the foundational supports for racism as a system of oppression is the convergence of material and psychological interests and benefits it provides to whites. In the post civil-rights era, explicit racism has become taboo, making the increased extremism and visibility of racism in the Trump era a threat to the existing institution of colorblind racism. Following this logic, the recent denunciation of racism by white liberals and their increased participation in #BlackLivesMatter is not surprising. But would this energy be maintained after a Biden victory in the 2020 presidential election and the symbolic removal of threat Trump posed to the colorblind racial order? I doubted it, because returning to the pre-Trump status quo would likely be good enough in the minds of many. And for me, that wasn’t a win in the long run.
So what’s next for racial justice activism now that Trump is out of the White House? How do we press forward with antiracist efforts during the Biden presidency? Based on my research and personal experiences, including participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement prior to and during summer 2020, I want to offer two ideas. First, we must continue to deconstruct colorblind racism and the façade of progress that it creates. We cannot allow the defeat of Trump as a symbol of white supremacy to be equated to the defeat of racism itself. And when I say we, I specifically call on white allies, accomplices, activists, and antiracists to do this work. Interest convergence among whites is a debilitating roadblock in the journey toward racial justice, and it must be defeated by the insiders who benefit from it. Central to this effort will be cultivating a consciousness among those who reap the psychological wages of whiteness that they would be better off with the material benefits brought by eradicating racism. Second, we have to find a way to address the racial battle fatigue and activist burnout facing Black people. This generally means investigating and pursuing theoretical frameworks and their real-world applications for addressing the weight of racism in the overall lived experience of people of color, particularly Black people. It also means understanding how white allies can increase stress for Black activists while attempting to support the movement. With this understanding, hopefully we can address Black activist burnout and create an environment in which coalition building intensifies, rather than dampens, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and antiracist activism more broadly. These tasks won’t be easy – they are large and amorphous issues to address. But without addressing them, achieving racial equity in the post-Trump era is unlikely.