I’ve spent the past month traveling across Africa and Europe as racial tensions in America boiled over, stoked by the tweets and temper-tantrums of Donald Trump. Even while traveling abroad, it felt like I couldn’t change the channel on Trump’s demented reality show. Perhaps most importantly, with my children — two in college and two still only in elementary school — I couldn’t help but feel powerless to protect them from the normalization of hate that saturates the news.
We’ve all just lived it — each news cycle was replaced by one even more surreal. First, Trump told Congresswomen of color to “go back where they came from,” and then stood silent as supporters chanted “send them back” at a rally. He slandered my hometown of West Baltimore as “rat infested,” labeling the place my family resides as somewhere “no human being would want to live.” Then a white supremacist who mirrored Trump’s racist rhetoric of Hispanic “invaders” drove nine hours to massacre 22 people in an El Paso Walmart. Only a week later, Trump’s immigration czar told a reporter that the poem on the Statue of Liberty welcoming the world’s “tired and poor” and “wretched masses yearning to be free” only applied to European immigrants. And yes, all of this played on every news channel from Kigali to Capri and Lagos to London.
Meanwhile, in the midst of this circus of hate, the anniversaries of Charlottesville and the killing of Michael Brown passed with little notice. Like American media, the world was too captivated by the daily freak show broadcast from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Still, there’s one anniversary this month we shouldn’t let pass without notice: the 400th anniversary of the first slave ships arriving from Africa on America’s shores. We all know the history of slavery, bondage, murder, and rape since those first ships arrived. We all know how slavery was the backbone of America’s economic prosperity until the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil War. We all know the promise of freedom was replaced by Jim Crow and red-lining. Even today, we struggle with a legacy of institutional racism where voting restrictions, gerrymandering, educational inequality, and mass incarceration continue to disenfranchise Americans of color.
But you can only sit in the toxic stew of hate and anger created by Trump for so long before it starts to impact your soul. I’ll admit to simmering in it along with everyone else. It was when I saw communities in El Paso and Dayton respond to horror with kindness, compassion, and love, I was reminded of Dr. King’s famous plea: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Because despite the 400 years of violence and violation Americans of color have endured, this month is also a time to celebrate our heroes and triumphs. For me, the greatest triumph — the largest leap forward for equal rights — occurred in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. No longer could local governments intimidate voters, create poll taxes and tests, or erect other barriers intended to rob African-American voters of their voice. We could finally have a say over the policies that shaped our communities and country.
For that reason, it’s not an accident this current Congress is the most diverse — both by race and gender — of any Congress prior. While it’s still not enough, we should be proud there are five times as many African American representatives in Congress today than there were in 1965. And we should be proud that America elected its first African American President in 2008 and re-elected him in 2012 thanks to record-setting turn-out by voters of color.
Unfortunately, in 2016, some African American voters took the progress of the prior eight years for granted. They actually believed Donald Trump’s line of “What the hell have you got to lose?” For the first time in 20 years, African American voter turnout fell, and it fell by a full 7%. More than 765,000 voters of color who got out to the polls in 2012 stayed home in 2016. I hope today it’s clear what we have to lose when a white supremacist sits in the Oval Office.
The question becomes how do we take our righteous anger and turn it into something positive? What will be our light in response to Donald Trump’s darkness? My answer goes back to our greatest achievement: register to vote. And when you’re registered, reach out to five friends, and make sure they’re registered to vote. Tomorrow, register five more.
Together we’ll drown out his hateful tweets with a chorus of love and light. The more we focus on lifting up our communities, our voices, and our children, the less room there is for hate. And yes, when the time comes in November 2020, our chorus will change the channel on this shameful episode in American history.