In the wake of Donald Trump’s most feverish attempt yet to improve his dimming presidential prospects, I’ve been giving some thought to his elegantly worded appeal to black and brown folk. The gist of the marketing pitch: Since black and brown lives are already so miserable, how much worse could they get if Trump were elected president?
"What do you have to lose? What do you have to lose? You're living in poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs — 58 percent of your youth is unemployed," he told the (nearly all-white) crowd at a rally in Michigan earlier this month.
"What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?" he asked at Virginia rally.
For this formerly undocumented Dominican immigrant who grew up in the "inner city" — a term whose continued use betrays a profoundly oversimplified conception of how and where ethnicity and poverty become entangled and commingled — some answers to Trump’s question came into sharp focus during a recent vacation I took with my wife’s family.
It is one of the glories of post–Loving v. Virginia America (and surely a horror to some Trump supporters) that a black Dominican can marry into a white family. It is a sign of how truly great America already is that amicable coexistence is possible between a black Dominican who #StandsWithHer and those relatives of my wife who support Trump: I am fortunate to have acquired by marriage family members with whom intense but civil disagreement is possible.
Yet even the best-intentioned conversations sputter to a stop — in my case, whenever I try to communicate how calamitous a Trump presidency would be for me and so many other black and brown folk like me.
What the hell do I have to lose?
The question comes from the same place of racialized myopia as the words of the in-law who asserted with absolute conviction that the descendants of slaves should be grateful not to live in the countries from which their ancestors were taken (cue lecture on the geopolitics and longue durée effects of the slave trade).
Trump’s question and my in-laws' casual assertion were both curated for presentation in lily-white settings, detached by racial privilege and a lifetime of segregation both de facto and de jure from any need to grapple up close with the experiences of black and brown bodies.
How can I explain to my in-law — and not so that I can then pat myself on the back for speaking truth to ignorance but that I might have a chance at persuading him — that already by securing the Republican nomination Trump poses an existential menace to the future I have spent the better part of my adult life fighting for?
It is a future in which my loved ones and all of those who reared and mentored me will be recognized as first-class citizens deserving of the very best America has to offer, not as restive black and brown folk pathologically inclined to violence who should be pacified with low-paying jobs or beaten into docility by more "law and order" policing.
It is a future in which civic freedom will be understood not as the unrestricted right to do whatever I can to benefit myself or accumulate possessions for myself but as the responsibility to support and care for others.
It is a future in which substantive knowledge will be prized, and political discourse structured around a set of agreed-upon facts that are derived through science and evaluated through the critical lens of the humanities — not around racial hysterics, conspiratorial mud slinging, or the deceitful manipulation of the natural and historical record.
It is a future in which the fetishization of the law, the demonization of "illegals," and the expansion of the carceral state will give way to a comprehensive and empathetic understanding of where our laws go wrong and how they can be better aligned with ideals of social justice.
It is a future in which skin color, ethnicity, immigration status, languages spoken, religion practiced, sexual orientation, or gender identity will never be cited as justifications for discrimination and reprisal.
It is a future in which presidential oratory will rise beyond paratactic strings of superlatives or fulminations of invective to acknowledge through its complexity and subtlety of expression the nuances of our world.
It is a future in which a mainstream political party and its media apparatus will stop holding up the aggrieved, red-faced, blustery white male or the hypersexualized white female as the only two forms of personhood worth indulging.
This is the future on which I have staked years of study and personal struggle. With Trump as president, gone would be any possibility that my president will know what "systemic oppression" is, or how it is sustained and perpetuated in American society and around the world.
Gone would be any expectation that political leadership can model responsible reflection and mourning in the face of tragedy instead of capitalizing on suffering and death to conceal deficits of vision and character.
Gone would be any chance of sending my and my wife’s children to fully integrated and well-funded public schools without being forced into complicity with the structure of grossly unequal educational opportunities that wears the mask of "school choice."
Gone would be any prospect of living wherever I want to live without having to face the obstruction (and worse) of racist landlords, or the aiding and abetting of such landlords by local and federal government policies.
And gone would be any hope of living in a United States freed from the murderous fragility of whiteness: a United States capable not only of owning up to the past destruction and present-day ravages of white supremacy, but of making a concerted effort to rectify, repair, and prevent.
So what the hell do I have to lose? Everything.
Dan-el Padilla Peralta is an assistant professor of classics at Princeton University. He is the author of Undocumented: a Dominican boy's odyssey from a homeless shelter to the Ivy League (Penguin 2015), now out in paperback.