Shocked But Not Surprised

The recent election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States was a shock to nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle. The many national polls that predicted an 85-90 percent chance of a Hillary Clinton victory turned out to be shockingly wrong. The shock of Trump’s election caused visceral pain and grief for some and elation for others. Yet amid the widespread shock, I became aware that some people who were initially shocked were at the same time not surprised. What does that mean? How could you be shocked but not surprised? An African American friend who has worked on the front lines of racial justice for decades reminded me that there is a pattern in our nation’s history when it comes to racism. Steps toward increasing racial justice are followed by resistance that can take a variety of forms. This pattern is summarized by the word “Backlash.”  A few examples among many include: 1) the freeing of enslaved people in 1865 followed by the backlash of decades of lynching and Jim Crow laws, 2) the historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas decision declaring segregation in public education to be unconstitutional followed by the strategy of “massive resistance” from Southern lawmakers, 3) the direct challenging of various Jim Crow laws through the non-violent campaigns of the civil rights movement followed by violent resistance including but not limited to the killing of four black girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, and the beatings and deaths of people during the Selma campaign, 4) passing key civil rights legislation including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act followed by the implementation of the “Southern Strategy” that was developed to gain ongoing political influence in the South to insure the interests of the white majority. This pattern was even given voice in popular music of the 60’s in the song “Backlash Blues” by Nina Simone. 


           In more recent times, the pattern of backlash has taken less obvious but equally destructive forms such as racial disparities in sentencing as the result of the war on drugs, mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos, voter suppression of minorities, racial profiling, and the killing of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police. This is not to say that everyone who voted for Donald Trump was consciously participating in the pattern of backlash. Many voted for him believing that he best represented their views on particular issues such as abortion and economic policy. Yet from the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the racial component was evident and consistent. It was part of the package. As Nell Irvin Painter put it in the title of her recent article “Without Obama There Would Be No Trump.” It is important not to characterize President Obama as perfect or President Elect Trump as evil. It is also important not to deny that this election is part of the pattern or racial backlash that has been at the heart of our country’s struggle with racism from the beginning – what the author and faith leader Jim Wallis calls“America’s Original Sin.” This national sin is not limited to one party or the other. For people of faith, the response to individual or corporate sin is confession and repentance – recognizing and taking responsibility for our sin followed by turning around and going in a new direction. This leads to forgiveness and hope that brings people back into right relationship with God and each other across any and all boundaries that separate us. Instead of blaming and demonizing each other, let us do the hard and necessary work of confession and repentance so that we can discern the way forward.  The road ahead is bound to be long and bumpy, but we stand on the shoulders of the witnesses who have gone before us and who changed our nation for the better through non-violent faith based commitment to love, liberty, and justice for all. Their goal was not the domination of one political party over another but the formation of the Beloved Community. Everyone can make a difference. I invite you to watch the short video below to see how children led the way to greater levels of justice in Birmingham, AL in 1963. How will we carry on that legacy today?