He called my son the N-word.
Kyle, my 19-year-old, told me this past fall, as though he were reading the ingredients on a cereal box. His college roommate had been getting physical in ways beyond young men horsing around, initiating unwanted wrestling that felt a bit too real given the weapons nearby. That white roommate had knives he liked to display, two pocketknives considered unlawful weapons by the school, and a much larger hunting knife that made their dormmates uncomfortable. This had gone on for weeks during his freshman year at a mostly white Christian college, Erskine, where weekly faith services for students are mandatory. It’s located upstate in South Carolina, where Donald Trump flags fly comfortably alongside those dedicated to Jesus.
Kyle hadn’t wanted it to become a big deal. He thought he could handle it alone, with reason and empathy. No need to alert his parents or the campus police and start trouble for a potentially troubled kid. No need to foolishly get in a physical confrontation, given the knives. Being called n—– changed his calculus. Even then, he didn’t want to become a martyr in this post-George Floyd world, didn’t want to seem aggrieved. He just wanted to be a college student.
Kyle finally went to the campus police. They searched the room and found two of the knives but not the largest one. They moved the roommate across campus. They apprised Kyle of his options. They somehow settled on the one that didn’t require a police report or formal inquiry before a student-led disciplinary panel, but rather a kind of reconciliation process in which he and his roommate worked it out through talking, better understanding each other. Kyle even helped that now-former roommate move his belongings, shook his hand. Kyle would find out only after I began asking questions to college officials that the roommate was still denying calling him n—– even after that supposed reconciliation.
I was angry that all of that had happened before my wife or I were told a thing. We didn’t have the opportunity to guide Kyle through a situation more complex than he understood. I was angry that I wasn’t there to kick his roommate’s teeth in, angry that I was angry Kyle hadn’t kicked his roommate’s teeth in, angry that I had allowed Kyle to see my anger. I was angry that he wasn’t safe at a school where we thought he would be.
Mine was a conflicted anger. Kyle had thought things through and acted in accordance with the way he had heard me preach a thousand times. To see the full, complex human being, no matter the circumstances. To not allow fear or anger turn into bloodlust or bitterness. To be steadfast even when others would be hotheaded and irrational.
But I was still angry. Because I understand that Kyle’s reaction—to move on, to adjust, to try to forget—is what we’ve been doing as a Black family in Trumpland for the past four years. And before that, as a Black family during the Barack Obama administration, when our white neighbors’ worst racist impulses leaked to the surface.
As President Joe Biden’s administration works to reverse the damage done by a presidency that stoked division and hate, and as Americans all continue to heal from the January 6 Capitol riot, the whole country is about to go through a version of what Black people in Trumpland have been going through for years. The Justice Department is straining under the weight of the 250-and-climbing cases it is pursuing, but how many of those people there will face no legal sanctions at all? Many will return to their hometowns as teachers and pastors and clerks of courts. A few have returned to my county to more cheers than criticism. Many, many more still support what happened, openly or not. My congressman, Republican Tom Rice, is likely to be punished with a primary next year because he surprisingly voted in favor of impeachment after spending years as a hardcore Trump supporter.
What my family and me—and many other Black people—have learned during these past 12 years is useful not just for people of color, but for all Americans after the Trump years. We’ve learned that the people we once thought of as neighbors and fellow church members would throw away their principles, and the values we all thought we shared, for an ugly brand of politics. And they’d do it even while hoping to preserve a personal relationship with us—and it was on us to just swallow our anger and move on.
Our lessons are especially instructive after Americans saw on January 6 just how far some of his supporters would go to ensure that Trump stayed in power, and just how little respect they had for the physical safety of people in the Capitol that day, as well as for our supposedly common project of democracy.
Many of us now understand that though some of our neighbors might be unreachable, we still have to figure out how to build a bridge back to them. We have no choice. They are still our neighbors. Enmity isn’t healthy for us, no matter who’s at fault.
As the country struggles with how to reach a reconciliation, a coming-together after years of division, I have a warning: It will be about as satisfying as the reconciliation my son had with his former college roommate. A fake handshake or hug; a denial that anything wrong was done anyway; and the victim’s sustained, head-down commitment to a shared goal of progress, even with so many open wounds and halfhearted reckonings along the way.
We noticed the first real changes in the wake of President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. My family and I attended a mostly white evangelical church, and the demeanor of many (but not all) members began to shift once Obama became president-elect. They began viewing me more as a Black man than they ever had before. Black as in “he won’t humor my racism”; Black as in “he gets upset and asks us to do better when we accidentally copy him on email chains that include racist memes and stereotypes.” That kind of Black.
I wasn’t Black in their eyes before Obama was elected, not really. Politically, I still considered myself independent enough to routinely vote for candidates of both parties, and I agreed with them that it was wrong to label the Republican Party racist. I had voted for President George W. Bush and Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor Mark Sanford, and even told one of my white friends they weren’t irredeemably racist if they had once used the N-word in anger. I believed in redemption then. I believe in it now.
Some of them literally told my wife and me that we weren’t really Black. We weren’t on welfare. We got married before we had kids. We had professional careers and standing in the community. Those were Black markers in their minds. It never occurred to them to reconsider, given that we were living, breathing examples that should have challenged their thinking. Though they were too comfortable with racial stereotypes even then, it felt as though they were reachable.
That changed when Obama won. I was baffled by national pundits declaring a post-racial America because a Black man was in the White House. What I saw was white neighbors, friends and colleagues clinging more passionately to their racial identity. Confederate flags, always in abundance, became even more so. It was then that I was radicalized, years before Trump declared his candidacy in 2015 with a speech in which he called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.
The 17-year-old Black boy Trayvon Martin was killed in late February of 2012, just as Obama’s re-election campaign was beginning. By the time I had heard of the shooting and some guy named George Zimmerman in someplace called Sanford, Florida—which is geographically in the South but has never felt like the South to me—my mind had gone where it usually did when a report of a young Black man being gunned down came across my timeline. Yet another senseless tragedy, I thought, as I grieved for his parents and wanted a full, fair investigation.
I didn’t want anyone to lose sight of the real issue, that George Zimmermans aren’t the biggest threat to young Black men. Young Black men are often killed by young Black men. When you’ve seen what I’ve seen, live where I live, such thinking is cultivated nearly from birth. In my anguish—and anger and frustration that I couldn’t do more to make things better—I had bought into the cries of “Black-on-Black” crime, even though I knew most crime was intra-racial, not just among Black people. I watched my Black father beat my Black mother. Before that, my grandfather shot my grandmother. I watched my oldest brother be taken away to prison for committing murder. I sat in courtrooms and took the stand in the defense of my youngest brothers who had been involved in the violent drug trade and were either partially responsible for or involved in the killing of more than one young Black man. A niece lost her mother to bullets intended for my youngest brother—bullets shot from guns wielded by young Black men.
I wanted us to focus on us, to solve the problems we faced, problems that couldn’t be fixed by a hyper-focus on white racism, even if that racism was a significant factor in a systemic way.
Martin’s death was unlikely to change my mind. I’d seen too much, had been cut too deeply to be moved by one more Black death. I’m ashamed to admit it, but that’s where I was: a cynical soul who had lost his passion to keep fighting for racial equality. A helplessness I noticed too late had set in.
His death became bigger in my mind when a significant number of the members of that mostly white Evangelical church I was attending began siding with Zimmerman.
My experience with young Black men and violence had initially convinced me to double down on attempts to humanize everyone, to convince people that you don’t have to be a monster to do something monstrous. Their lack of experience with young Black men and violence had led those white Christians to succumb to the worst racial stereotypes. They believed Zimmerman’s version of events because it rang true to them—that a young, Black thug was trying to kill him for no reason, leaving Zimmerman no recourse but to kill or be killed. They believed Zimmerman had reason to follow Martin and suspect him of committing crimes because crimes are disproportionately committed by young Black men.
It did not matter that all Martin had done was walk home from the store and even tried to avoid a confrontation with Zimmerman. Their belief in that version of events solidified when Obama said if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon. To them, that meant the nation’s first Black president—a man many of them despised—had taken sides, convincing them to stand in opposition.
There is no doubt in my mind their defense of Zimmerman would have been softer or quieter if their hatred of Obama had been as well. Their racist hatred of the president turned racial matters like the killing Martin into us vs. them, and Trayvon Martin into a political football they could kick around in a culture war. It no longer mattered that I was their friend, their neighbor. The president had defended Black boys like Trayvon, so they had to defend Zimmerman.
I couldn’t dissuade them, not even when I asked how they would have reacted had it been their child who was killed. Their kids would have simply answered whatever questions Zimmerman had and made it home safely, they insisted. I asked them how they’d feel if it had been Kyle instead, my Black son who had been raised in their church. Would it have been OK for someone like Zimmerman to have suspected Kyle as a criminal and confronted him that way? I asked. Of course not, they said. They loved Kyle and would grieve with me if anything happened to him.
They had given Kyle a pass because they knew us. Their assurances sounded like too-sweet words designed to cover for a much greater sin.
I was baptized in that mostly white evangelical Christian church in Conway, South Carolina. I raised my kids there. I stayed for nearly two decades before I could no longer take what I had experienced: not a hatred, not blatant racism, but something worse.
They often invoked the name of Jesus in love, no doubt, even praying for Obama and me when I got sick late in 2013. But the name Jesus was also used to convince me and others like me that it was best to grin and bear racism, to rejoice when we were afflicted, to be calm when we encountered injustice inside the church or elsewhere, to love our neighbors, to prioritize their wants and needs and comfort more than we even loved ourselves. The Confederate flags on the pickups of fellow church members or in their homes? We shouldn’t judge them, because we were to never forget that we’d all fallen short of the glory of God. And in any case those flags weren’t about racism but a celebration of heritage that should be respected.
I knew then that though George Zimmermans weren’t a major threat to young Black men, those who would defend a George Zimmerman were.
And then, after the election of Donald Trump, I saw something else. Not only did individual figures like George Zimmerman win the sympathy of my Trump-supporting white neighbors. People like Nick Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse became their mascots during the Trump years, a symbol of what united them against the rest of us. The white-conservative embrace of Nick Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse further radicalized me; the divide between Trump supporters and what I considered behavior still acceptable enough to maintain close relationships only grew, and I was starting to see no way to close it.
Sandmann, a high school student from Kentucky who was filmed in a much-hyped confrontation with a Native American elder while on a school trip in Washington, D.C. became a cause célèbre in 2019 for conservatives who saw themselves as subject to rules written and unfairly enforced by liberals. I take part of their point that initial footage of the confrontation was taken out of context, unfairly suggesting Sandmann was a racist instigator, and that the widespread reaction before all the facts were in was ugly and unwarranted. Still, the massive swell of support from conservative writers and Fox News personalities was difficult for me to understand, too.
When the dust settled, those high school students and their families had somehow become, in my neighbors’ minds, the ultimate victims of racism in America. Never mind the racial disparities in the criminal legal system, public and higher education and the business world. No matter. Their plight launched a million missives and think pieces about how young white boys were being victimized by cancel culture.
Sandmann was given a prominent speaking role at the 2020 Republican National Convention, a celebration of a party whose only platform seemed to be the worship of Trump. On that stage during the convention, Sandmann reveled in his realized power, willingly becoming yet another weapon for white conservative Christians to use in the culture wars.
What happened with Rittenhouse was even more telling. Rittenhouse was a baby-faced 17-year-old white kid the night he allegedly shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who had been demonstrating against police brutality after the shooting of a Black man. Rittenhouse is charged with killing two of the men. He pleaded not guilty in court, and his supporters claim the killings were in self-defense. According to his supporters, Rittenhouse was a hero, a patriot doing the work law enforcement officials refused to do. Rittenhouse was reestablishing law and order the way Trump had called for.
“This was Kyle’s life being destroyed,” actor Ricky Schroeder told The New York Post. “This is his freedom at risk. It infuriated me to see an innocent 17-year-old young man being tried and found guilty before trial.” Schroeder was so moved he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rittenhouse’s bail and defense.
This has been the reality of America for much of the 21st century: a sense that young white people are becoming the real victims of race and racism.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised by what happened January 6, and am not crazy to believe something worse could happen if we don’t change course. Because I have spent the past dozen years learning just how wide a gulf exists between me and those on the other side of the Trump divide. Though I knew we didn’t share the same set of facts, I was convinced we at least shared the same god. I’m no longer sure we do.
I saw Trump and Blue Lives Matter flags still flying in my neighborhood months after the election, even after an insurrection that included dozens of former and current police officers. Trump signs still dot sidewalks where I take daily jogs. The Fox News Channel blares in the background when I sit down at my favorite restaurant.
During these years, I’ve had to listen to Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich talk about food stamps while I’m getting my kids’ bikes repaired, and tea party pundits disparaging Obama while I wait at the local auto mechanic. After the election, while driving to work, I’ve encountered mile-long caravans of Trump supporters. There’s no question many of the people I come in contact with believe the election was stolen from Trump and question the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. I teach not too far from where the North Carolina man who shot up a D.C. pizza parlor to rescue nonexistent child sex slaves in a nonexistent basement once lived. I have taught Trump supporters and sympathizers, and will likely teach them again, and have to be mindful of honoring and respecting them as much as I do every other student I encounter. I will. I must. Because this is their America; I’ve learned that over the past 12 years, and everyone learned it on January 6.
But Kyle, and my 16-year-old daughter Lyric, still have the right to demand better, even when standing up for themselves discomforts the white people in their midst. One day, they won’t have to just grin and bear it, won’t have to submit to a one-sided reconciliation. And Americans across the country can still demand—must demand—that their elected leaders recommit to facts, to fairness, to the democratic process instead of using white grievance to usher in new voter suppression efforts and attempts to shame into silence those who refuse to just give in.
Trump supporters and their sympathizers are right: This is their America. But make no mistake, this is our America, too. We don’t have to apologize to anyone for wanting to shape it in our image as much as they want it to remain in theirs. Before January 6, I didn’t fully understand the importance of making that clear. I won’t forget again. And I won’t allow my kids to forget, either.