Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
“With the election of President Obama, many, especially white, folks heralded the emergence of a new, post-racial America. Many sociologists, however, noted the “new racism” beneath and beyond the choice of America’s leader. Mayo Saji not only documents those arguments but also considers the implications of Trump’s election for racism’s expression. Equally if not more important, she points to new forms of resistance within and across racial divisions to the injustices of Trump times.” – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
“Trump’s campaign has made people fear for their lives, their ways of being, their rights.”[i] How did we get here? As Michael Kennedy expressed in his article on Transformational Solidarity in the Time of Trump, many, if not all identities outside of those who are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Christian, American, able-bodied, and male are in fear of what a Trump presidency will mean for their rights and liberties. In this paper I will focus on race and examine how racism has grown and changed from the time of Obama’s presidency to the present and further, how resistance movements against racism have changed as a result. First, I will discuss the ways in which racism existed and transformed during the Obama administration. I will then explore the effects Trump’s victory had in validating many white supremacist ideologies and the way racism in America was altered by this resurgence. Lastly, I will consider how forms of resistance have and are changing in response to Trump. The main conclusions I will make are that racism – as it ideologically festers among Americans and structurally lives within institutions – has not fundamentally changed from the time of Obama to Trump but that anti-racist resistance movements have been able to garner more support in the era of Trump, due to the increase in visibility of racist attitudes Trump’s campaign has enabled.
To understand how resistance is changing today in response to Trump, a foundational understanding of what resistance looked like during the time of Obama must be met. First, examining the implications of Obama’s election on racial dynamics in America is important to then seeing how resistance movements organized in response. The 2008 election of Barack Obama, as our first black president, was considered historic. Many supporters and viewers worldwide saw this moment as a proud marker that racism in America had been transcended. This misguided sense of America officially being ‘past racism’ can be seen from news articles as the results came out. The New York Times cited Obama’s victory as “sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.”[ii] This statement came from a very shallow understanding of racism as purely an ideological entity. Almost simultaneously, there was a national spike in hate crimes against black and brown people, in the immediate aftermath of the election results.[iii] Josh Pacewicz, a sociologist at Brown University, reflected back to the significance of Obama’s time in office, stating, “I see the Obama phenomenon as a “signal juncture”… a non-turning point that illustrates the structural forces preventing systemic change.”[iv] Obama’s election was a false symbol of racial progress. It did not affect the more covert, structural ways in which racism manifests in America. Rather, Obama’s time as president allowed for institutional racism to continue by bringing a guise of being in a “post-racial” political and social society. As another scholar, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva had predicted, Obama’s success did not signify a decline of racism but a change in its presentation. “Obama is the product of 40 years of racial transition from Jim Crow to what I have labeled as the “new racism”.[v] This is a racism in which racial minority leaders are championed as examples of racial equality, while institutionalized racism is largely left unaddressed.[vi]
This veil of a post-racial America is why racial resistance during the time of Obama’s presidency predominantly fell unto people of color – namely black people. It wasn’t necessarily just that white and non-black folks couldn’t see the ways in which racism was manifesting in America. Many instances of institutional racism arose during Obama’s eight years in office such as the revisited debates over affirmative action, the protests in Ferguson, and the Charleston church shooting to name a few. [vii][viii][ix] But having a black president at the end of the day reinforced the idea that progress was still ultimately being made. Again, this was only in the most symbolic sense that allowed those who did not directly experience the continued violence of racism to passively reason that their allyship was not necessary. The emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2012 after the shooting of Trayvon Martin is a strong case in point. Three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded and led this movement.[x] Cases of institutional racism such as mass incarceration and police brutality were brought to the attention of non-black people in America thanks to the efforts of people of color like them. The protests in Ferguson also showed how black communities came together demanding Americans notice the systemic violence black communities faced. Academic works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected (2015) represent the labor of black folk moving the address of structural racism within scholarly circles. Resistance movements worked hard during the Obama years, especially towards the end of Obama’s time in office as racial tensions increased.[xi] Many white, patriotic Americans felt a growing resentment towards Obama’s administration, feeling as though their voices were going unheard and that they were becoming a minority in their own country.[xii] Trump received a surprising amount of support from Americans who held these sentiments.[xiii] Trump’s victory thus confirmed the very real presence and resurgence of white supremacy in America.
Contrary to the atmosphere of America when Obama was elected in 2008, Trump’s election hailed a new era in which white supremacy could be appraised and racism was okay again. In trying to make sense of the news, political writer Chauncey DeVega stated, “One of the repeated narratives which I have encountered from Donald Trump supporters online (and in person) is that they are not “racists,” [and] are the “real victims”…”[xiv] Such a narrative of victimhood was essential to Trump’s campaign. It unfurled years of white resentment that had built up during the Obama era and brought justification to racist, nativist, and white supremacist ideals. Trump’s election, like Obama’s in 2008, brought a spike in hate crimes.[xv] However, unlike the few hundred hate crimes Obama’s election spurred in the following month, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – 1,094 “bias incidents” (hate crimes and lesser hate incidents) were reported in the first 34 days after the election of Trump.[xvi] The motivations for these hate incidents were predominantly anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ.[xvii] While these data suggests a sudden increase in xenophobic, racist, islamophobic, and homophobic sentiments – it is only an indication of actions taken. Many of these hateful feelings could have and probably did exist well before the election of Trump. Further, white racial resentment during Obama’s administration probably strengthened these oppressive attitudes within many. Trump’s election brought legitimacy to the resentful, white supremacist Americans’ feelings of victimhood. Therefore, the more likely conclusion is that the surge in hate groups and hate incidents came from the confidence many now felt from the validation of their concerns, to vocalize racist and nativist thoughts. Ways in which America is structurally racist, such as the institutions and complexes that power racism, have not fundamentally changed or worsened – but the increase in the visibility of the faction of America that supports such systems has grown.
Increase in visibility is what has enabled a mobilization of resistance distinctly different from any previous anti-racism movement from the Obama era. Non-black folk are beginning to feel more accountable for showing support to their black counterparts in a wider movement against Trump’s oppressive ideologies. The Women’s March on Washington is a key example of this newfound solidarity. In what has been lauded as “the largest day of protests in U.S. history”, millions gathered around the country (and world) to protest the election of Trump.[xviii] The event attracted many people who had never previously participated in activism or protesting.[xix] It can be upsetting to the people of color who have been organizing and resisting for much longer.[xx] However, it is still important to note that if it hadn’t been for Trump’s election, and the racism in America his politics and rhetoric has brought to light, many people would never have gotten involved in social justice initiatives as they are now. In my immediate circle alone, I have already seen an incredible emergence of projects and events specifically in response to the various oppressions Trump supports. The #EarthtoTrump: Roadshow of Resistance calls itself an “act of resistance within themselves – providing ways to get inspired, plug in to your local community’s issues, and even take action during the event”.[xxi] The group has been traveling around the country bringing music and speeches all by women of color. Their event in Providence alone was marked “interested” by 841 people on their Facebook event page and attended by 172.[xxii] The Brown Student Labor Alliance has organized a series of workshops called “New Pathways to Social Action” in response to how “the current political moment clearly necessitates action”.[xxiii] Since Trump’s election, those who oppose his ideologies seem to actively be seeking ways to resist him. Allyship has become essential in fighting against the plethora of oppressive policies and orders Trump has given out thus far.
In many ways, it is still too early to tell what resistance to Trump will truly look like and how it will impact Trump’s actions. This surge in allyship could be temporary and fade with time. However, my paper is optimistic in what this new age of resistance could look like. I hope my peers and I continue to work for racial and social justice. However, I wonder why we needed someone like Trump to bring such urgency to divisions our country has had long before Trump came on to the scene. For this reason, it is also important to consider what allows or brings certain people to act and under what conditions the choice to act feels more vital.