In a recent viral video, an unidentified white woman in line at a grocery store in Oregon, dressed in a floral romper and black knee-high boots, overheard a black woman’s phone conversation. She believed this black woman was trying to sell food stamps illegally. The exchange became heated, and the white woman was told, in no uncertain terms, to mind her business. “Oh, it is my business,” the white woman responded. “Because I pay my taxes.” She then said something that, quite frankly, stunned me: “We’re going to build this wall.”
This was not an oddly timed statement about her views on immigration; it was a declaration of her whiteness and, by extension, her view of who belonged in this country. She might as well have called the black woman a nigger. She didn’t. She called the police instead.
But no, this wasn’t a video of police violence or another example of some white person hurling racial epithets. In so many ways, the argument between these two women captured the soft bigotry that has, from beneath the surface, enabled American public policy and individual behavior for decades. This woman, years after the departure of what Newt Gingrich called in 2011 “the most successful food-stamp President in American history,” saw a member of Mitt Romney’s “47% … who are dependent upon government … who pay no income tax.” This white woman witnessed Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen. Now she had not just a new phrase — build this wall — but also the confidence that the President would support her in her indignation, and that the problem would soon be resolved. America would be great again.
It is this type of outburst, though — blaring and easy to denounce — that provides many Americans with a familiar experience: the moral comfort of having someone else to blame for our nation’s racial struggles. If only we, the non-racists, could kick her out, or lock her up.
It is relatively easy to blame our current struggles on these loud racists who have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. But this is typical American racial melodrama. We need easily marked villains and happy endings. Yet this recital of condemnation all too often hides the messiness of our own moral lives: that we aren’t absolved of our complicity simply by the politicians we support, especially since the American public so rarely pushes for policies that enact our supposed commitment to racial equality.
The fact is that Americans have grown comfortable with racism resting just beneath the surface of our politics — to be activated whenever a politician or a community needed it, or some racist incident exhumed it only for us to bury it once again. What has resulted is an illusion that blinds us to what was actually happening right in front of our noses and in our heads — we believed that our country had become less racist, because we were not as brazen as we once were.
Trump has shattered that illusion. He rode race, the third rail of American politics, straight to the White House. He challenged Obama’s citizenship, called Mexicans rapists and criminals, proposed to ban all Muslims from entering the country, insisted on the need for “law and order,” argued that immigration was changing the “character” of the United States and openly courted white supremacists. He dog-whistled in a way that let no one feign deafness. Trump promised to dismantle Obamacare and provide a “beautiful” alternative, to make Mexico pay for “the wall” and to restore America’s manufacturing greatness — jobs and tax relief included. His pledges spoke directly to the forgotten American’s sense of victimhood: that he had been left behind during the Obama years and that his way of life was under threat.
Trump exists in a sweet spot between the soft bigotry of self-contradictory American liberals and the loud racism of those who shout “nigger” and demand that Latino people go back to Mexico, all stuck in an economic system that cannot reconcile the startling gap between the top 1% and those busting their behinds to make ends meet. Trump sits right there, amid the mess and false promises, with a smirk on his face.
But Trump isn’t some nefarious character unlike anything we have seen before. He embodies the hatreds and fears that have been part of America’s politics since its founding and that erupt with every rapid change in our society and world. He stands in a tradition of American politics that can be traced to Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat run for the presidency, George Wallace’s bids for the presidency in 1968 and 1972, and Patrick Buchanan’s runs in 1992 and ’96. Each of these men could move a crowd with their homespun rhetoric and their willingness to speak unvarnished truth with little regard for the consequences — and each sought to give voice to a deeply felt sense of white victimhood as the nation grappled with significant social transformation, be it the end of the Jim Crow South or the tumult of the ’60s revolution. America responded, at least in words, by othering them: These were marginal men and marginal thoughts. The grievances were real, the country said. The messengers and their racial animus were the problem. This separation — of so-called grievance from racial animus — was a grave error, and it is one we are in the process of repeating.
In 2016, the degree to which a person deeply identified as white “strongly related to Republicans’ support for Donald Trump,” political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck write in their forthcoming book, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. For instance, among white millennials who voted for Trump, a sense of white vulnerability — “the perception that whites, through no fault of their own, are losing ground to others” — and racial resentment were more important factors than economic anxiety, found researchers Matthew Fowler, Vladimir Medenica and Cathy Cohen of the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago. In fact, Tesler says — and this insight goes beyond those millennials — “economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety.”
Despite this, we heard over and over again from pundits and politicians — including Democrats — that racism couldn’t explain the counties that voted for Donald Trump and Barack Obama, that more attention needed to be given to the dire circumstances of working white men and women, that Trump’s election was a white, working-class, often rural backlash and what was needed was a focus on Middle America. This criticism coalesced with an ongoing obsession about what suburban white America was thinking. All the while, they decried the President’s use of explicit racism, as opposed to the implicit kind they had been endorsing, knowingly or not. The problem was him — not us.
It felt like folks weren’t fighting the true problem. They were, in fact, protecting it.
Our narrow focus on explicit racists misses a development that explains our current moment: that much of our struggle with race today is bound up in the false innocence of white suburban bliss and the manic effort to protect it, no matter the costs. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, for example, millions of white homeowners in the nation’s suburbs — for the most part, racially segregated communities subsidized by state policies — rejected efforts to desegregate schools through busing and vehemently defended the demographic makeup of their neighborhoods. These were not people shouting slurs at the top of their lungs (although some did). They were courageous defenders of their quality of life — segregated life, that is. These were the people of the so-called “silent majority,” who insisted on free-market meritocracy and embraced a color-blind ideology to maintain their racially exclusive enclaves. Their antibusing crusades, taxpayer revolts and insistence on neighborhood schools cut across party lines and helped shape national politics. Democrats and Republicans appealed to the interests of these voters, and many turned their backs on the agenda of the civil rights movement. These Americans, it was argued, were the true victims.
In his important 2006 book, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, historian Matthew D. Lassiter stated clearly the effect of this moment from the late 1960s and early ’70s:
The suburban politics of middle-class warfare charted a middle course between the open racism of the extreme right and the egalitarian agenda of the civil rights movement, based in an ethos of color-blind individualism that accepted the principle of equal opportunity under the law but refused to countenance affirmative-action policies designed to overcome metropolitan structures of inequality.
Suburban white America voiced its belief in racial equality, but relentlessly held on to white class privilege and all the policies and structures that made it possible. Many social scientists would call this the “new racism” or “laissez-faire racism,” in which white Americans failed to actively address racial inequality and, in doing so, maintained the racial status quo. Historians, like Lassiter, would identify it as a key feature of modern American conservatism.
White people’s expressed racial attitudes, by most measures, have become progressively better. Today, according to public-opinion surveys, most Americans don’t hold the views of Strom Thurmond in 1948 or George Wallace in 1968. They believe in integrated schools and reject segregated public transportation and the like. In the early 1940s, according to Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo, 68% of white Americans supported formal segregation. By the 1990s, 96% of white Americans believed that black and white children should attend the same school. But as Bobo wrote in his classic 2001 essay, “Racial Attitudes and Relations at the Close of the 20th Century,” these expressed commitments stand alongside “numerous signs of the gulf in perception that often separates blacks and whites.”
A 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, showed that 87% of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination today. Only 49% of white Americans feel the same. The disconnect between our stated commitments and our practice is so great that we can’t even agree what the problem is. This is the hazy middle ground of the silent majority.
That same study found that 43% of Republicans said there is a lot of discrimination against whites. Only 27% of Republicans said the same with regard to discrimination against blacks. This makes sense. Since the mid — 20th century, Republicans have made a living as the party of white grievance, even as it puts forward “pro-growth” policies and ardently defends the benefits of small government. (I know many of my friends will cry foul here and shout that this conclusion is just an indication of my singular focus on race. Their evasion is part of the problem.)
What is less explored is the Democrats. The recognition of the volatility of race led many in the party, especially those who founded the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985, to work hard to win back white middle-class voters by addressing their concerns. Ever since, Democratic strategists and politicians have been in hot pursuit of so-called “Reagan Democrats” and aimed to speak — especially after Trump’s election — to what they generally described as working-class America. Here they rejected bad identity politics in favor of a politics that did not alienate the white working class. Bill Clinton’s strategy of triangulation reflected a cynical co-optation of Republican views that drove the party to the center-right while taking black voters, among others, for granted. (In a way, Hillary Clinton duplicated this approach in 2016 in her effort to court “Bush Republicans” who said they couldn’t vote for Trump.) Meanwhile, as politicians courted the ideal white voter, racial inequality persisted and black political participation was distorted, as we African Americans stood between a party that assumed we would support them nonetheless.
Americans experienced the confusing effects of this pervasive contradiction between our stated commitments and practices with the election of Barack Obama. For many, Obama’s ascendance signaled the end of entitlement for whites. But instead, his presidency occasioned a resurgence of white resentment that set the stage for Trump. We experienced the vitriol of the Tea Party and saw several states seek to enact strict voter-ID laws that disproportionately impact black and brown voters, sometimes successfully. Obama proved our national commitment to racial equality. The vehement hatred of him exposed the illusion for what it is.
All the talk about equality serves as a kind of cover for the actual practices that continue to reproduce differential outcomes for black and brown people and protect white class advantage. Trump can promote the lie that his policies alone have produced the lowest black unemployment rate in history. He gives no credit to the Obama Administration and pays little attention to black labor-participation rates. He is silent about what would happen to the numbers if we include, as Harvard sociologist Bruce Western suggests, those who are incarcerated. Trump only cites the numbers to deepen the illusion and to justify the dismissal of claims of racial inequality as simple cries of victimhood.
It turns out what we do reveals what we truly believe — no matter the public proclamations of our commitment to a more perfect union. The facts of our daily lives in this country speak volumes. Studies reveal the racial bias in policing; in sentencing and rates of incarceration; in differential punishment in schools for black and brown children; in the persistence of residential segregation and its cascading effect in the life cycle of black people; in how even if an African-American or Hispanic adult earns a college degree, she will still financially lag behind a white American with the same degree.
But all of this was the case before Trump was elected. It is not enough, then, to decry the loud racists or to resist Donald Trump. We must, once and for all, confront the silent majority — even if until now we did not realize we are them. We must confront ourselves.
The desire to distance oneself from Trump fits perfectly with the American insistence that we not see ourselves for who we actually are. We evade the historical wounds, the individual pain and the lasting effects of it all. The lynched relative; the buried son killed at the hands of the police; the millions locked away to rot in prisons; the children languishing in failed schools; the smothering, concentrated poverty passed down from generation to generation; and the generalized indifference to lives lived in the shadows of the American Dream are generally understood as exceptions to the American story, not the rule. Blasphemous facts must be banished from view by a host of public rituals and incantations. We tell ourselves a particular story of the civil rights movement with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat and Dr. King dreaming of America as it should be. Our gaze averted, we congratulate ourselves for how far we have come and ruthlessly blame those in the shadows for their plight in life. Our innocence secured, we feel no guilt in enjoying what we have earned by our own merit, in defending our right to educate our children in the best schools and in demanding that we be judged by our ability alone. In this illusion, Trump has to be seen as singular. Otherwise, he reveals something terrible about us. But not to see yourself in Trump is to continue the lie. We must finally reject the lie.
The longing for a time when matters were simpler, and the angst over lost superiority over people of other races and ethnicities, will not disappear on their own. By 2045, America will be a majority minority nation. Demography isn’t destiny, and the mere fact that white people will be a minority does not guarantee the country will suddenly become a more racially just society.
But something fundamental is changing. As a country, we have been at the crossroads before — the Civil War, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the civil rights movement — and found ourselves with a choice to be otherwise. In each moment, no matter the possibilities in front of us or the significant changes in our social imaginations, the country held tightly to its prejudices and its unseemly beliefs about the value of white people. Trump broke the post–civil rights consensus that America would keep its racism quiet. He has unwittingly cracked a pernicious impediment — one we still hear in those who in one breath decry his explicit racism and then accept policies and positions that stoke the flames of white racial resentment. Surprisingly, though, Trump has provided us another choice, another chance.
What has for so long been hidden — or willfully ignored — is now in the open. Americans will have to decide whether or not this country will remain racist. To make that decision, we will have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We must address not just the nasty words, but also the policies and the practices. We need to look inward. Trump is us or, better, you. And by the irony of history, my fate and my son’s safety are bound up with you.
How do we clear the space — Can we clear it? — to debate states’ rights, to argue over the necessity of a social safety net, to haggle over policing and prisons or to fight about the importance of public education without the undertow of racial animus and without the attribution of bad faith? I am convinced that, if we are to imagine the country as a genuinely multiracial democracy, we have to tell ourselves a better story about who we are, how we ended up here and why we keep returning to this hell. No more Pollyannaish tales about the inherent greatness of America. Ours is a history of not just obvious racist monsters but also of lily white communities with nice picket fences and good schools, of concerning comfort, of fits and starts and abject failure — rife with ordinary people doing horrific and, sometimes, courageous things.
Perhaps Samuel Beckett’s words from his 1983 novella, Worstward Ho, offer a more appropriate (and humble) approach to the crisis we now face: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Forward movement is halting, inhibited, interrupted. Our history, if we’re honest, suggests we will fail. No matter. We go on — together.
This appears in the September 17, 2018 issue of TIME.