Last year, I wrote about discussing race with white people. Around that time, I harbored the suspicion that I was The Black Friend [1] whose presence and friendship validated lazy allies.[2]

This election proved me right. Visible minorities in these white and/or elite spaces are symbols obscuring power structures that have barely changed for centuries. We’ve become a salve for people who reject the premise of racism, who mean us no harm, but who do benefit from the status quo, and who do not do the work.

But the election also proved me wrong. Last October, I argued for The Black Friends to continue the conversation on race. I said that while we may resent being the teacher and shouldering that burden, we were in the best position to force the conversation to happen, to inform the future leaders of America who their constituents, clients, countrymen, and colleagues really are. Clearly that isn’t enough.

Now I have to pass the responsibility back to the allies. Here, take it.

 

The day after the election, some classmates wept, in public, during class, in the hallways. For many white liberals, especially, women my age, this was the first realization that the world was not theirs. But this wouldn’t be surprising if they’d been listening. Minorities (especially minority women) have been saying this for years: there are bigots among us, many more than you think, more powerful, hateful, and callous than you think.

On November 8, this country, that I have tried my whole life to get along with, spit in my face. That was no real surprise, but it was our would-be allies that shook me. They sat the election out while Trump got voted into office; or used precious votes on third-party candidates; or assumed we really were post-racial[3] and thus there was not much at all to do; or decided to disengage from their right-leaning friends, because, golly, it’s uncomfortable.

While my classmates wept, my worry set in. My parents live down in the heart of all this. They are black, naturalized citizens in a county that bleeds GOP red. They live in the state where the KKK was founded, in the state with the most mega churches per capita, in a state with almost 100 counties and all but three voted for Trump, in a county that repeatedly tried to block the construction of a mosque, in a county where every precinct voted red. Will my parents be harassed at the store? Will one of their neighbors decide they don’t belong in their neighborhood anymore? I worried for myself and other minorities at HLS. Who here among us voted for Trump? Who here thinks we don’t belong? Will they feel more comfortable letting me know that? Like many other students, anxiety about our physical safety began to grow.

I also worried for the groups I am not a part of—Muslim Americans and refugees who will be harassed and demonized; anyone confused for either group and subject to the same cruelty; young girls who will be raised thinking their bodily integrity is illegitimate; LGBTQ people, religious minorities, the disabled. I’m deeply worried for the physical safety of all of us who do not “look” like we fit in, in addition to the general looming deprivation of civil rights and liberties and our inadequate remedies.

 

I will not discount that there has been a justice-oriented galvanization after this election; people who didn’t believe it before, are now certain that our civil rights and civil liberties aren’t as secure as we imagined.[4] There’s no doubt that we should continue that push.

But the post-election think pieces and podcasts have highlighted the inability of white people to understand how complicit they are in all this. [5] The flurry of explanations—the Comey letter, the Trump surrogates, the email obsession, the uneducated white vote, and the misunderstanding of the working class—can alienate us from the problem. The reality is more complicated than any one of those answers.[6] To blame discrete events or only a subset of “the working class” without discussing the ways bigotry seeped in and affected every aspect of this election, our solutions will be lacking.

If you get nothing from reading this, remember that good faith, as a legal and moral standard, is fragile. Good faith allows fleeting considerations of righteousness to stand in for actual behaviors and their consequences. Being a good ally requires more. Depending on how bad it gets, every act and decision we make for the next four years (at least) may need to be a political one. We all need to get comfortable being rebellious and dissenting and loud. 

good faith, as a legal and moral standard, is fragile.

 

To begin, when discussing the election and our next moves, don’t ask POC to feel sorry for the “white working class,” as if class status is unique to that group. To expect us to agree that white voters were justified in feeling left behind asks that we ignore black and brown voters in similar economic straits and that we once again offer compassion to a group that refuses to do the same for us.

Don’t tell us to calm down. We can be angry, and we can protest, and we can begin to fear the worst. We don’t owe anyone grace in this defeat.

But, don’t disengage from us. Take this time to understand how we, the marginalized groups of America, experience the country and how the country experiences us. Work your empathy muscles. Listen to people of color, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. Actively center our stories, rather than your own. Read the news and op-eds, our fiction and poetry. See our films, and study our art. Acknowledge us, and stand up for us, make our lives easier and less scary, and give up the idea that things are set in stone.[7]

Don’t disengage from the political right—at least not from those who are still reachable and especially not without telling them why. Take the responsibility to engage with your Trumpy[8] friends, family, and coworkers, because we, The Black Friends, aren’t in a position to reach them. Be vocal. Be self-reflective. Begin to learn and understand for yourself how the system sustains itself and what work needs to be done.

Only take up the mantle of equality and justice, if you’re willing to actually participate. I was part of a campus group that carries the name of a movement started by a black woman. It was created to fill the gaps of a mainstream movement that ignored POC needs. The campus group is led by white women, has a board that is almost entirely white, and often fails to emphasize the racial justice that is the very foundation of their organization. Instead, it is flung around as a self-righteous asterisk. The name is an homage to equality, while the fight itself is gone.

Don’t put on the—literal or figurative—safety pin unless you will actually intervene during acts of harassment and abuse.[9] A safety pin and pity aren’t enough when someone is getting called racial slurs, being told this isn’t where he belongs, or having her hijab torn from her head. Begin to build networks of support.

Use your considerable privilege for good. Volunteer. For lawyers, use your pro bono hours to further social justice causes. Give money to causes that don’t affect just you. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are amazing organizations, but will be flooded with cash. Give to the organizations that specialize in direct services, deportation cases, disability rights, or highly local causes. If you can afford to drop the firm job and do something in the public interest, do it.

Remember that we’ve seen an authoritarian shift before; we know what the signs are. While we cannot panic quite yet, we can refuse to get comfortable. It’s up to the Trump administration to prove they aren’t the bigoted monsters Trump has promised.[10]

Let’s keep up the momentum of organizing and demand more from a new DNC. There is a historical tendency to exploit the black vote and ignore their needs. We cannot afford a shift of that kind. We need more people of color in leadership positions. We need an inclusive concept of the good a left-leaning political organization can do. I’m fine dropping the type of identity politics that required Abuelita Clinton to dab on The Ellen Show. But we can’t subsume the rights and needs of marginalized groups under a broader moniker of “the working class.” We know from history that it ends the same for black and brown people, with the DNC using our support to gain power and refocusing priorities once they do. In our party system, too, allies must be vigilant of those creeping, insidious forces of bigotry.

As hate crimes spike and the incoming administration threatens to upturn our democracy, your kind thoughts and good intentions won’t be enough. There are people who stand to lose everything they’ve gained in the last eight years (or possibly 50) including a sense of physical security. They may never be close enough to ask you for help, and you will still need to be prepared to offer something real.

 


[1] Every person belonging to a marginalized social or legal group is encompassed, for the purposes of this article, in the term “The Black Friend.” My experiences are not unique, and the term seeks to explain the feeling of being seen as the “welcome other.”

[2] The term “lazy allies” includes anyone with any power (including simply the right to vote) who claims to care about marginalized groups, but who did not or does not pull those levers of power.

[3] In the election context, post-racialism illuminates its own strange implications about the social hierarchy. Liberal commentary has suggested that Obama’s election foretold a Clinton win, revealing an ingrained view of social hierarchies that requires us to implicitly accept a white woman as a legitimate leader at the same time we vote in a black man. In other words, electing Obama was seen as evidence that we pushed past the heart of sexism and through racism. In my opinion, there was and is no convincing evidence that a shift like that had occurred. Be wary of those who stress Obama’s otherness—“Barack Hussein Obama”—in the same breath they express shock that Clinton lost.

[4] But, for real, let’s pay better attention. Korematsu is still technically good law, and Trump surrogates are citing it. Last summer, we almost lost affirmative action and abortion access.

[5]This does not assume that people of color themselves are not subject to internalized racism, but the poll numbers do not favor that as a driving force in this election.

[6] No group of white people really repudiated him, like they feel they did. Trump had a majority of whites across the board. Poverty alone, education alone, gender alone doesn’t explain this.

[7] This is for people of color, too, but I doubt they need so strongly to be reminded.

[8]Trumpian? Trumpites? Trumpers?

[9] See our article: Bystander Intervention.

[10] So far, he’s not doing too well.

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Leena is a 3L at HLS. She is from Tennessee. She received her B.A. in sociology and human rights from Columbia University. Prior to law school, Leena worked in communications at the NYCLU.

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