Code Switch

Post-Election, Conversations About Race 'Sparked A New Sense Of Urgency'


New York police officers block the street during a protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in front of Trump Tower on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York. Americans spilled into the streets Saturday for a new day of protests against Trump, even as he app
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
New York police officers block the street during a protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in front of Trump Tower on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York. Americans spilled into the streets Saturday for a new day of protests against Trump, even as he appeared to back away from the fiery rhetoric that propelled him to the White House.

There was a time when some people thought President Obama's election ushered in a post-racial America.

Nobody is saying that now. Obama's administration was marked by protests against police shootings, among other events. Donald Trump questioned Obama's birth certificate for years, and now, after a profoundly divisive campaign, is preparing to replace Obama in the White House.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery has witnessed a lot of this.

Lowrey, whose new book is called They Can't Kill Us All, covered unrest after a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of Freddie Gray who'd been arrested in Baltimore.

Interview Highlights

On how conversations about race are different now than they were a week ago

I think the conversations we're having today about race and will continue to be having about race have sparked a new sense of urgency. One thing that was remarkable about the election of President Obama was that he did so with a rhetoric and with an ideal that we were not a divided America. It's fundamental to his ideology of American exceptionalism. What's been remarkable is that Donald Trump ran on an ideology and a platform that we are in fact a divided America, that there is an us vs. them, that we need to take something back from people who have seized it from us. It speaks in many ways to the Newtonian every-action-has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction [law].

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On how some voters would argue that it is Obama who is divisive

That is not unlike the conversation we've had on race for the entirety of our history. When you go back ... and read interviews [about the lynchings of black people by white mobs] of the white residents who lived in the town that had just lynched a black man the day before, it was the media that didn't understand them: This wasn't really about race. Why is no one upset about the crime that guy committed? Why is everyone upset that we strung him up in the town square? These have been the contours of our conversation for the entirety of our existence because, as the president himself says very often, our American existence is very largely premised on an original sin of slavery. We have baked in these ideas to the fundamental structures of our society.

President Obama himself was never going to be someone to usher in that type of post-racial reality. That wasn't something that was ever going to happen, and I think that part of our fallacy of understanding and thinking was expecting that in the first place.

On the idea that not all Trump supporters are racist though they supported him even with his racially tinged rhetoric

I don't accept the premise. To begin with, what we know is that human beings harbor prejudice. I think one of the fundamental battle lines in this conversation is: Do you believe that racism requires intent or do you believe that racism is about the outcome, the effect, that if a policy has the effect of racism, of creating a racial disparity, is that accurately described as racist – or does it require someone actively desiring to oppress a certain group of people? I think that is a part of this battle line we've seen. We see a lot of white Americans and certainly Trump supporters who would argue, "No, I don't have hate in my heart for people who aren't like me." And you see the left — and largely the Black Lives Matter protest movement and many of the forces that have been driving this conversation for eight years under Obama — who would argue that no, racism and prejudice are what occurs when, whether intentional or not, a structure or system is put in place that leaves one group of people behind.

On questioning whether voting matters, given that having a black president hasn't police shootings of unarmed black men

"I voted twice for Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin is still dead. I canvassed for Barack Obama, the Charleston Nine are still dead, Dylan Roof still shot up that church." These are the types of things we heard from ... activists and demonstrators [while researching the book].

There are certainly activists who didn't vote in 2016, because I think that there's a grapple: How do you effect change and what does political power look like? One of the things that I think is remarkable is this idea that a black presidency showed us the limitations of a black presidency. Of course a black presidency couldn't usher us in a post-racial world, we now deeply understand, but we couldn't comprehend the limitation upfront.

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