Permanence of Racism and the Hope of Resistance

There are no more patriotic people in America today than black, brown and Muslim people. Period.

Over this past week, many immigrants, most undocumented, are taking part in the #daywithoutimmigrant strikes. Last month, Yemoni bodega owners in New York City conducted a strike by closing their stores, which are normally open 24 hours/7 days a week (if you want to hear more about my thoughts on the bodega strike, watch this video). In my last post, I wrote about the importance of elevating voices of color as this administration’s onslaught against them intensifies. And ordinary people of color are raising their voice, telling their stories, and demanding the justice they deserve. To do all this in face of such hostility is the mark of true patriotism.

Let’s be honest, to be a person of color in the United States right now is to be continually disappointed, frustrated, hopeless and even scared. This is not to say that some minority communities weren’t already feeling this way before the rise of Trump. However, now we all feel it and feel it intensely. The Trump administration has made it a cornerstone to dehumanize people of color by painting with broad strokes very dark views of all of us who do not fit their narrow definition of American – white, heterosexual, and Christian. We know that they are attempting to codify hatred into laws and aspire to erase social progress made within the last 50 and even 150 years (if you want to learn more about this threat, Jamelle Bouie’s recent article on government by white nationalism is an excellent start).

As the Trump drumbeat goes on and we read about inhumane treatment by people with power whether it’s a five year old being handcuffed by Customs and Border Patrol agents or ICE agents conducting horrific raids in immigrant communities, how do we continue to feel empowered and raise our collective voice?

In an effort not to feel paralyzed by the hopelessness and fear that I’m feeling, I recently dusted off one of my favorite college textbooks, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” Through a series of short stories, Derrick Bell, a long-time civil rights lawyer and the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, argues racism is a not a passing phase but an “integral, permanent, and indestructible component of [American] society.” He further argues that any judicial and legislative victories that moves us closer to social progress and a more equal society is a necessary mirage that helps maintain the racial hierarchy. While this might sound utterly despairing, I’d argue it’s a blueprint for understanding and ultimately surviving Trump’s America.

When you look through Bell’s prism, the arcs of America’s history fits into the pattern he describes. The end of slavery made way to nearly a century of brutal Jim Crow laws. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement ushered in the Raegan movement, which was white folks lashing back with anger. So it’s fitting the racist undercurrent that is ever present in American society would produce a virulent nationalism that narrowly defines who is an American after eight years of social progress by the very presence of a remarkable first Black President (who we are not likely to again see the likes of in our lifetime). And of course the man that would replace him would be a blatantly racist and ignorant man with a small ego that validates the superiority of whiteness. It’s also not surprising then that thirty years after being rejected for federal judgeship, Jeff Sessions would not just be confirmed as Attorney General but be portrayed as a civil rights proponent. It should shock no one that this cabal of white nationalists are redefining not just the power of the executive branch but who deserves the protections guaranteed in the Constitution.

Bell also argues that judicial and legislative progress can and must occur because a system of racial hierarchy can only survive if there is a mirage of equality as evidenced by small victories. We saw that with the Muslim Ban, a discriminatory executive order that barred entry into the country citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order was wide-reaching applying not just to refugees and valid visa holders but permanent residents and dual citizens as well. As if on cue to perpetuate a mirage, the courts delivered a temporary victory with a stay of the ban. However, legal scholars have pointed out the shaky legal ground of these decisions (if you want to read more on this, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s breakdown of the legal arguments). Judicial intervention in the Muslim Ban demonstrates that the law can expand ever so slightly for justice to prevail occasionally. However, the entire episode of the ban also demonstrates that social progress just as slowly as it expands, it can also constrict quickly and without warning.

“Our story is less of success than of survival through an unremitting struggle that leaves no room for giving up.” – Derrick Bell

You’re probably asking, if this is a natural progression what is the point of resisting? Why should communities of color put themselves at risk to make their voices heard?

Bell, without hesitation, would argue we keep fighting, just as he always chose to fight. He argues that simply acknowledging the permanence of racism itself is liberating. So, it’s comforting to me to know that Trump’s America is not just a phenomenon that began with him or will end with his short- or long-lived presidency. The ugly racism was always fermenting, so this acknowledgement can become the driving force to push against the boundaries of racism that lead to meaningful social change.

I also take inspiration from Derrick Bell’s life which was a permanent struggle against racist structures at enormous personal cost. Early in his career, before the civil rights movement was a movement, he resigned his job at the Department of Justice rather than renounce his NAACP membership. He gave up his deanship at the University of Oregon Law School because the school did not make a commitment to hiring more Asian professors. Similarly, he lost his tenured job at Harvard Law School because he took a stand against Harvard Law School’s abysmal record of hiring women of color.

I also take inspiration from the actions of vulnerable communities that are fighting back against this administration. Some are big with a lot of attention but others are small acts of resistance that take place every single day and are equally important.

The hope and survival guide I find in Bell’s work is the importance of “survival through unremitting struggle.”