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“All politics is identity politics”: reckoning with racial justice in the Trump era

Nine advocates and experts on the future of activism and equality.

Photo Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown; Scott Olson/Getty Images

During the Obama years, a new generation of racial justice activists emerged, elevating the needs and demands of people of color. Through acts like protesting against the officer-involved killings of black people, lobbying for unbiased treatment of children of color in schools, or tweeting about the lack of racial diversity in entertainment, advocates helped illuminate the vast inequalities that continue to plague communities of color across the country.

But when Donald Trump was named the winner of a long-fought presidential campaign, one thing became exceedingly clear: The country had entered a full-on backlash to any racial progress it had gained during the prior administration.

During the presidential campaign, Trump proposed policies to bar Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the country, and he’s since began to enact those changes. He asserted that Mexican immigrants were bringing a stream of crime and drugs to the United States. And in addition to his history of discriminatory housing practices as a building owner in New York City, he was among the loudest advocates in wrongfully convicting five young men of color for raping a young woman in Central Park. He continues to paint black and Latino Americans with the broad brush of living in crime-infested “inner cities.”

And because of his rhetoric and policies, Trump has embodied the antithesis of racial justice advocates’ message. More broadly, racial resentment has been revealed as a major factor in why voters backed Trump, making his election seem like a referendum on race relations across the country.

With all of this, racial justice advocates have a lot of work on the horizon. Here’s what they told Vox, right before Trump’s inauguration, about the election, a changing American society, and what needs to happen next.

Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist and immigration rights activist, founder of Define American

On election night, there was already a big crowd gathering at the Fox News headquarters, and this guy recognized me. I’d been going on Fox News quite a bit. … He basically tapped me on the shoulder — actually, he grabbed me, and this guy said to me, “Get ready to be deported.”

Deray McKesson

DeRay Mckesson is an organizer, educator, and activist

Hate and bigotry have been big mobilizers in this country, and [Trump] tapped into that. But this election showed that a strategy of opposition isn’t a winning strategy — that people need something to vote for, and that’s a lesson learned for the Democrats.

Alicia Garza

Alicia Garza is an activist, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter

This is something that Black Lives Matter has been talking about for a long time, and the warnings that we had been giving actually came to fruition. This is what happens when we don't deal with this really big elephant in the room, right? If we don't deal with it, other people will. They'll exploit it, and they'll use it to their own advantage.

Wesley Lowery

Wesley Lowery is a Washington Post journalist and author of They Can’t Kill Us All

I’ve talked to activists and other people, and they say they could not believe the country would elect someone with a platform that included, in some of its premise, racism, sexism, and misogyny. I can believe that 100 percent.

Jose Antonio Vargas

I think we’re seeing a real breakdown of institutions across America. [We’re trying to figure out] what it means to be engaged, what it means to be a citizen — and I don’t mean citizen papers, citizen birthright, because clearly I’m not a citizen by both of those definitions — but what it means to bear witness and show up for each other. What it means to be an active participant in this democracy.

Marisa Franco

Marisa Franco is the co-founder of the Latino grassroots organizing group Mijente

The strain of the economy was huge. This race was essentially won in the Rust Belt, and [with] Trump’s relentless attack on things like NAFTA, trade policies, loss of jobs, loss of industries. And the fact that he could pose himself as an outsider was a difficult thing for [Hillary] Clinton to overcome. Something I read recently framed it as there was a level of pride in having blue-collar jobs and industry jobs, where people were working with their hands. And they’re now working in service jobs. The change of economy created a space where, well, who do you blame for that? We blame Mexicans. We blame immigrants.

Wesley Lowery

Historically, what we see after moments of great racial progress, we see white backlash — Reconstruction, even drug war policies after the civil rights era. This is, as Americans, what we do when the white status quo feels threatened. We see this empowerment of white racial grievance, where now you’ve had these eight years to do equity change and equality.

Jose Antonio Vargas

Toni Morrison says, “We die, That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” … At a moment like this, I find it necessary to create a new language that transcends this political moment, that transcends Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, Trump, and really gets down to the basics about what we as people need and want. And how we must show up for each other and what that looks like.

I’m rereading a lot of some language around welfare during the Reagan years. I’m rereading a lot of the language around the AIDS crisis and how gay people have been, were written about. I’m reading about just the utter moral corruption and indifference that have characterized how we talk about immigrants in this country. Especially after 9/11, in which “terrorist” was a code word for immigrants.

Monica Roberts

Monica Roberts is a Houston-based blogger at TransGriot and transgender rights activist

Most of the folks that were sitting up there on the coast, pretty much in safe, blue areas, have never had these hateful assholes in their face. Or you're living in areas where you passed LGBT-friendly legislation back in the '70s and '80s. And you didn't have to fight tooth and nail for it, like we did for HERO [the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance], and sit through 30-plus hours of hearings while having hateful crap spewed at you.

Photo Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown; Scott Olson/Getty Images

Wesley Lowery

It’s true that many major cities have seen upticks in homicide, and the Trump administration will likely wield that as a weapon for a more law-and-order approach. … There are questions to be answered around homicides, and the way to approach that as reporters is to apply pressure to the powerful. What resources are being [expended] to solve homicides? What can be done so young men don’t feel so desperate to do these things? It speaks to jobs, education, to programs to reduce recidivism. Again, there’s almost no social or domestic story that doesn’t have any government participation for what’s going on. If Chicago’s in crisis, then who’s responsible for solving that crisis?

Benjamin Watson

Benjamin Watson is a Baltimore Ravens tight end, author of Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race — And Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us

The great thing that happens is that box has been opened and if approached the right way, we are able to grow from it. We are able to understand people from other places and understand why they believe the way they believe. They are able to say, “I believe this way, and maybe I need to change. I didn’t understand what it was like when the police pulled you over. I just thought you must've been doing something wrong.”

Monica Roberts

All politics in the United States is identity politics. We got beat by identity politics — white identity politics. Until folks realize that basic fact that all politics in the United States is identity politics, we're going to continue to get our butts kicked by conservatives. Protests without a long-range strategic plan to get liberal progressives in office are a waste of time and energy.

Alicia Garza

I'm in the middle of writing a piece for a book, and I had to do some research on Harriet Tubman. I read about the first time that she took the Underground Railroad, and what was happening around her politically. The president at the time, basically was like, "Slavery is not my main concern; it's a side issue." [Laughs]

And so here we are, 100-and-something years later, and we're still basically having the same conversation, except that slavery was one of the major organizing principles of how this nation came to be. Every time people in leadership would put it to the side, it would pop up in different places. It feels very similar in this moment, where there's this kind of trend toward saying, well, those things are a distraction, and if we just deal with class issues, then we'll be able to address all of the things that people care about.

Jose Antonio Vargas

Think about it. Just the words that get used: urban, inner city, marginalized, minorities, illegals, anchor babies, model minorities. Like, what do these concepts and words mean? Who created them? I think in some ways, a lot of this politicized language really blurs what we want to talk about. I don’t want any more white people calling people of color minorities. Because guess what? You’re becoming the minority, white people. Are you ready for that? Do you know what that looks like when you talk about white people as if they’re not the center of the world?

Jamila Hammami

Jamila Hammami is the executive director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project

They're coming after folks of color and hijabis and queer and trans folks. I think [violent bigots have] always existed, but I also grew up in the South, so the [Ku Klux Klan] isn't something that's, like, super new to me, but one of the train stops that I visit a lot, there were a bunch of fliers up for them — on 86th Street, in Manhattan.

Heather Cronk

Heather Cronk is the co-director of Showing Up For Racial Justice

A lot of friends of mine, specifically friends of color, have either been targeted or have been more conscious of walking through white spaces. A friend of mine said, “Knowing that a majority of folks voted for Trump, I walk through spaces trying to figure out, ‘Was it you? Or was it you?’” looking at the white folks around them and taking inventory. And that’s a thing I know folks may do regularly and size up people around them, because they just don’t know. And of course, this is much bigger than Trump — he just gave us a quantitative component. I guess the Pandora’s box of racism, sexism, and misogyny has never closed, but it’s continued to open. And it’s not going to go away just because somebody else gets elected in four years.

Alicia Garza

Any [politician] who is walking around right now saying, "Let's wait and see," is somebody that you need to make sure, the next time their seat is up for reelection, that they don't get reelected. Because they're clearly not in touch with reality.

Heather Cronk

The idea of people wearing safety pins — there’s a lot of white folks not wanting to be confused for the racists or the bigots. But that’s our work to do. We have to earn that. We can take off the safety pin. We have the option of not responding when we witness violence.

Alicia Garza

I actually want to live another 50 years [laughs], and that's what I feel like is at stake. I want my parents to live out the rest of their lives in dignity, and I want my friends to live out the rest of their lives in dignity, and I want to live it with them. So abstaining is not an option for me.

Photo Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jose Antonio Vargas

I think we need a new kind of language to engage as many people as possible, in more uncomfortable but necessary conversations. I’m a firm believer that progress should not come with a party. And I believe firmly that those of us in the racial justice base — again, whatever that term means — [can’t] stay in our silos. Meaning, if I’m not connecting immigrant rights with the movement for black lives, with women’s rights, with LGBTQ rights, with climate change, with income inequality, with white privilege, if I’m not connecting this issue to all those other issues, then I’m not really doing my job.

Jamila Hammami

It’s time to buckle down and get in the streets and try to get engaged with your community. Because there's a lot that we can do in numbers. None of the struggles that we've won over the past 50 years have been because it was out of the goodness of the heart of the president, right? Civil rights, the women's rights movement, the queer rights movement, movement around HIV and AIDS, it's all been because people have been in the streets.

Alicia Garza

Every day I wake up and there's a new threat, there's a new consequence. It's really easy to just say, "Fuck it," but unfortunately, as much as I’d love to, that doesn't get us out of where we are. So I really want to focus my energy personally on people who are dreaming of another way, and who are willing to work for it — who know that it's not about waiting until things get so bad that people just mysteriously wake up and say, “I wanna fight.” We all know that shit doesn't happen that way.

And that actually, this is a perfect opportunity for us to shake off the confusion and the disillusionment, and say, you know, this is our country, actually. And we're not going to go down without a fight. And so that's what keeps me going. Let's build the country that we want. This is an opportunity to actually build the alternatives that people are longing for. That's where I want to put my energy. That's what makes me feel like we're making progress, or at least, at the very least, we're fighting like hell for our lives.

Photo Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown; Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Wesley Lowery

When I think of journalists who have done important work over time, whether it was covering the civil rights movement in Atlanta or elsewhere, or Ida B. Wells or W.E.B. Du Bois, it’s not that they’re valued in real time. It’s not that people believe them. Not that people read Wells and said stop lynching people. But that five to 10, or even 50 or 100 years later, that someone was calling them out and saying what they knew to be true.

When people research Trump 50 years from now and research the Department of Justice, will those documents be available? Journalists need to plant clear flags for the record and, if contemporary times don’t value it, wait for history to vindicate them.

Monica Roberts

I agree with Maxine Waters when she said we need to fight. And consistently fight. And not give a damn about being nice about it.

DeRay Mckesson

I will be helping to build the capacity of other organizers and to be intentional about skill development as we go forward. And specifically on the issues that we want to mobilize around, and engaging a range of options for … about engaging in change in many ways. Whether it’s voting, whether it’s local politics, making sure the right people are on local committees, school boards, and all of those are important ways that we engage in building power. And that’s the work I want to do next.

Heather Cronk

We’re going to be helping build up the leadership among anti-racist, working-class white folks, and we’re going to be investing in rural communities. There are so many folks in the press, and among Democratic elites, and politico types who like to blame the election of Trump on poor and working-class white folks. But that’s actually not who elected Donald Trump. Middle- and upper-class white folks did.

One of the things we want to do is reach out more intentionally to poor and working-class white folks who understand white supremacy is not good for people of color or white people. We know there are a ton of white folks in those areas who understand nationalism screws with everyone. And we’re going to work to bring them the resources and the tools they need to bring their communities along.

On the rural piece of this conversation, these areas just aren’t contested. So what happens is that white supremacists move in and say, “We’re here for you, we’re showing up.” When you have a Democratic Party that runs elections in cities, of course they’re going to urban areas and not rural areas. Those aren’t entirely white spaces either — there are lots of folks of color who live in these areas who haven’t been heard.

Monica Roberts

We now have 49 African Americans in the Congress, and our first African-American female senator since Carol Moseley Braun was there. Latino representation increased to 38 representatives total now. Asian Americans increased to 15. The number of women in Congress increased. And many of those are — survey says? Democrats! Are there things, strategically, that we could do better? Hell yeah! But it's not the wholesale gloom and doom.

Marisa Franco

Our task is going to be responding to Trump with show and not tell. Obviously, the easiest place to move is going to be at the state and local level, so we’ll be focusing on that. But I really think the task for us is to engage more people — cast the net and bring people into a social movement, in ways they feel like they can meaningfully engage and belong. The greatest error we can make is to isolate ourselves and only think of ourselves, our own issue, our own problems. Because that would be the easiest way for Trump to do what he wants to do.

Jose Antonio Vargas

My friend Linda Sarsour is the head of the Arab American Association of New York. A Muslim woman. She was talking about how she doesn’t want to talk about hope anymore. She wants to talk about love. Hope feels — it’s not something you can touch. It’s something that’s there, you’re looking forward to it. But love is right here, right now.

As I’m thinking about my work, as I’m thinking about my own self, I think a lot about how much I love this country. And the love that I feel, not only for this country, but for all of these Americans who have been marginalized for so long; who have been rendered invisible for so long; who have felt excluded by America. Not just because they weren’t born here, but people who are born here, who feel rejected by an America that was never a dream but was always a nightmare.

I feel so much love for all these people who, to me, by the very nature of their survival and their insistence on being seen and being heard and being full, live up to what the America that we’re fighting for is supposed to be about. I think if there was ever a time that we as Americans can find the power in each other, the need to see our issues in our lives as interconnected, that time is now.


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