Kyle eventually went to campus police. They searched the room and found two of the knives, but not the largest. They moved the roommate across campus. They informed Kyle of his options. They sort of opted for the one that didn’t require a police report or a formal investigation before a student-run disciplinary committee, but some sort of reconciliation process in which he and his roommate worked it out through conversation to better understand each other. Kyle even helped the ex-roommate move around and shook hands with him. Kyle wouldn’t find out until after I started asking college officials that the roommate still refused to call him n —– even after that supposed reconciliation.
I was furious that all of this had happened before anything was said to my wife or me. We haven’t had a chance to guide Kyle through a more complex situation than he understood. I was mad that I wasn’t there to kick his roommate’s teeth, mad that I was mad Kyle hadn’t kicked his roommate’s teeth, mad that I allowed Kyle to see my anger. I was mad that he wasn’t safe in a school where we thought he would be.
Mine was a contradicting anger. Kyle had thought things through and acted as he had heard me preach a thousand times. To see the full, complex human being, no matter the circumstances. So as not to let fear or anger turn into intoxication or bitterness. To be steadfast even when others are hot-headed and irrational.
But I was still angry. Because I understand 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 the worst racist impulses from our white neighbors surfaced.
As President Joe Biden’s administration works to undo the damage a presidency has wrought that has fueled division and hatred, and while Americans continue to be healed from the January 6th Capitol riot, the whole country will be going through a version of what the blacks in Trumpland have been going through for years. The Justice Department is tense under the weight of the 250 cases it is pursuing, but how many of those people there will not face any legal sanctions at all? Many will return to their hometowns as teachers, pastors and court clerks. Some have returned to my county for more jubilation than criticism. Many, many more still openly or not support what happened. My Congressman, Republican Tom Rice, will likely face a primary next year for surprisingly voting for impeachment after years as a hardcore Trump supporter.
What my family and I – and many other black people – have learned over the past 12 years is useful not just for people of color, but for all Americans after the Trump years. We learned that the people we once considered to be neighbors and fellow church members would throw away their principles and the values we all believed we shared for some ugly kind of politics. And they would even do it in the hope of maintaining a personal relationship with us – and it went on us just swallow our anger and move on.
Our classes are particularly educational after Americans saw on Jan. 6 how far some of his followers would go to ensure Trump stays in power and how little respect they have for the physical safety of the people in the Capitol that day had for our supposedly common project of democracy.
Many of us now understand that while some of our neighbors are inaccessible, we still have to figure out how to build a bridge back to them. We have no choice. They are still our neighbors. Enmity is not healthy for us no matter who is to blame.
With the country struggling to reach reconciliation, a clash after years of division, I have a warning: it will be about as satisfying as the reconciliation my son had with his former roommate in college. A wrong handshake or a hug; a denial that something was done wrong anyway; and the victim’s continued head-down commitment to a common goal of progress, even with so many open wounds and half-hearted calculations along the way.
We noticed the first real changes After President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, my family and I attended a predominantly white evangelical church, and the behavior of many (but not all) members began to change when Obama was elected president. They considered me more black than ever before. Black as in “He won’t amuse my racism”; Black as in “He’s upset and asks us to do better if we accidentally copy him onto email chains that contain 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 from either party, 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 that once they used the N-word in anger they would not be irrevocably racist. I believed in redemption then. I believe in it now.
Something of them literally told my wife and I that we weren’t really black. We weren’t on welfare. We got married before we had children. We had professional careers and were in the church. Those were black marks in her mind. It never crossed their minds to reconsider as we lived and breathed examples that should have challenged their thinking. Even though they were too comfortable with racist stereotypes even then, it felt like they were reachable.
That changed when Obama won. I was amazed by national experts declaring America by race because there was a black in the White House. What I saw were white neighbors, friends, and coworkers who clung to their racial identity more passionately. Confederate flags, always in abundance, grew even more. I was radicalized back then, years before Trump announced his candidacy in 2015 with a speech calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.
17-year-old black boy Trayvon Martin was killed in late February 2012 when Obama’s re-election campaign began. By the time I’d heard about the shootings, and a guy named George Zimmerman in a place called Sanford, Florida – which is geographically in the south but has never felt that way the south for me – my mind had gone where it normally was when a report of a young black man being gunned down hit my timeline. Another pointless tragedy, I thought, as I mourned his parents and asked for a full, fair investigation.
I didn’t want anyone to lose sight of the real problem that George Zimmermans isn’t the greatest threat to young black men. Young black men are often killed of young black men. If you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you live where I live. This thinking is cultivated almost from birth. In my fear – and anger and frustration that I couldn’t do more to make things better – I’d bought myself into the screams of “black-on-black” crime, even though I knew most crime wasn’t Blacks took place only among the races, but also within the race. I watched my black father beat my black mother. Before that, my grandfather shot my grandmother. I watched my eldest brother get jailed for murder. I sat in courtrooms and stood up for the defense of my youngest brothers who were involved in the violent drug trade and who were either partially responsible for or involved in the murder of more than one young black boy. A niece lost her mother to bullets destined for my youngest brother – bullets shot from guns carried by young blacks.
I wanted us concentrate us, to solve the problems we faced, problems that could not be solved by hyperfocusing on white racism, even if that racism was systemically a major factor.
Martin’s death probably wouldn’t change my mind. I had seen too much and been cut too deep to be moved by another black death. I’m ashamed to admit it, but here I was: a cynical soul who had lost its passion for continuing to fight for racial equality. A helplessness that I noticed too late had set in.
His death grew bigger in my head as a significant number of the members of this mostly white evangelical church in which I attended began to stand up for Zimmerman.
My experience with young black men and violence had initially convinced me to double the attempts to humanize everyone and convince people that you don’t have to be a monster to do something monstrous. Their lack of experience with young black men and their violence had led these white Christians to succumb to the worst of racist stereotypes. They believed Zimmerman’s version of events because it was true – that a young black thug tried to kill him for no reason and left Zimmerman no choice but to kill or be killed. They believed Zimmerman had reason to follow Martin and suspect him of the crime because crimes were disproportionately committed by young blacks.
It didn’t matter that Martin had just walked home from the store and even tried to avoid a confrontation with Zimmerman. Their belief in this version of events was solidified when Obama said that if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon. To them, it meant that the nation’s first black president – a man whom many of them despised – had sided with them and convinced them to be in the opposition.
I’m sure her defense of Zimmerman would have been softer or quieter if her hatred of Obama had also been. Their racial hatred of the president turned racial issues like killing Martin in us against her and Trayvon Martin into a political football to trample in a culture war. It was no longer important that I was her friend, her neighbor. The president had defended black boys like Trayvon, so they had to defend Zimmerman.
I couldn’t stop them, even when I asked how they would have reacted if their child had been killed. Their children would have just answered any questions Zimmerman had and got home safely, they insisted. I asked them how they would feel if it had been Kyle, my black son, who grew up in their church instead. Would it have been okay for someone like Zimmerman to suspect and confront Kyle as a criminal? I asked. Of course not, they said. They loved Kyle and would mourn with me if anything happened to him.
They gave Kyle a passport because they knew us. Their assurances sounded like words too sweet to cover a much greater sin.
This is where I was baptized mostly white Evangelical Christian church in Conway, South Carolina. I raised my children there. I stayed for almost two decades before I couldn’t take what I had experienced: no hatred, no overt racism, but something worse.
No doubt they often called out the name of Jesus in love and even prayed for Obama and me when I got sick in late 2013. But the name Jesus was also used to convince myself and others like me that it is best to grin and endure racism, to be happy when we were concerned, to be calm when we are in church or encountered injustice elsewhere, loving our neighbors, prioritizing their wants and needs, and comforting more than we loved ourselves. The Confederate flags on other church members’ pickups or in their homes? We shouldn’t judge them because we should never forget that we had all missed the glory of God. In any case, these flags were not about racism, but about a celebration of heritage that should be respected.
I knew then that while George Zimmermans was not a great threat to young blacks, it was those who would defend a George Zimmerman.
And then, after Donald Trump was elected, I saw something else. Not only individual figures like George Zimmerman won the sympathy of my Trump-supporting white neighbors. People like Nick Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse became hers mascot a symbol during the Trump years of what united them against the rest of us. The white-conservative embrace of Nick Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse radicalized me further; The gap between Trump supporters and what I thought was still acceptable enough to maintain close ties only widened, and I gradually saw no way to close it.
Sandman, a Kentucky high school student who was filmed in a vaunted confrontation with a Native American elder while on a school trip in Washington, DC, became a 2019 Célèbre for Conservatives who saw themselves subject to the rules that are written and were unfairly enforced by liberals. I agree with their point that the first footage of the confrontation was taken out of context, wrongly suggesting that Sandman was a racist instigator and that the widespread response, before all the facts were known, was ugly and unjustified. Even so, the massive support from Fox News’ conservative writers and personalities was hard for me to understand.
When the dust settled, these students and their families had become the ultimate victims of racism in America in the eyes of my neighbors. Regardless of racial differences in the criminal justice system, in public education and in higher education, as well as in the business world. No matter. Her plight started a million missives and thought about how young white boys fall victim to the culture of demolition.
Sandmann was given a prominent role at the 2020 Republican National Convention, a celebration of a party whose only platform appeared to be the worship of Trump. On this stage during the convention, Sandmann reveled in his realized power and willingly became another weapon for white conservative Christians to use in the culture wars.
What happened to Rittenhouse was even more revealing. Rittenhouse was a 17-year-old baby-faced white boy the night he allegedly shot and killed three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who demonstrated against police brutality after the shooting of a black man. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two of the men. He pleaded not guilty in court and his supporters claim The murders were used for self-defense. According to his followers, Rittenhouse was a hero, a patriot, who opposed the work of law enforcement officers. Rittenhouse restored law and order, as Trump had called for.
“This was Kyle’s life that was shattered,” actor Ricky Schroeder told The New York Post. “This is his freedom at risk. I was furious to see an innocent 17 year old young man tried and found guilty before the trial. “Schröder was so moved that he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rittenhouse’s bail and defense.
This was the reality in America for much of the 21st centuryst Century: the feeling that young whites are the real victims of race and racism.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised by what happened on January 6th, and I’m not crazy to believe that something worse could happen if we don’t change course. Because over the past twelve years I’ve learned the gap between me and those on the other side of the Trump divide. Even though I knew we didn’t share the same facts, I was convinced that we at least share the same God. I’m not sure we’re going to do this anymore.
I saw Trump and Blue Lives Matter flags fluttering in my neighborhood months after the election, even after a riot involving dozens of former and current police officers. Trump signs are still on the sidewalks I jog on every day. The Fox News Channel is booming in the background when I sit down in my favorite restaurant.
During those years, I had to listen to Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich talk about grocery stamps while getting my kids’ bikes fixed and tea party experts belittling Obama while I wait at the local auto mechanic. After the election, I came across miles of caravans of Trump supporters on the way to work. No question about it, many of the people I come in contact with believe that Trump’s election was stolen and question the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. I teach not far from where the North Carolina man who shot and killed a DC pizzeria to rescue non-existent child sex slaves in a non-existent basement once lived. I have taught Trump supporters and sympathizers and will likely teach them again. I must be careful to honor and respect her as much as I would any other student I meet. I’m going. I must. Because this is their America; That’s what I’ve learned over the past 12 years and everyone learned it on January 6th.
But Kyle and my 16-year-old daughter Lyric still have the right to make better demands, even if they stand up for themselves and make the whites in their midst uncomfortable. One day they will not only have to grin and endure it, they will not have to submit to a one-sided reconciliation. And Americans across the country can still – must demand – their elected leaders reassign themselves to fact, fairness, and democratic process, rather than using white grievances to start fresh efforts to suppress voters and try to silence those to bring those who refuse to give in to justice.
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 make it in our image as much as they want it to stay in theirs. Before January 6th, I didn’t fully understand the importance of making this clear. I will not forget it again. And I won’t allow my children to forget either.