I usually find it somewhat amusing to hear American politicians and American political parties as they talk to, or about, African American communities. When you listen to them it is pretty clear that they often are not actually talking to us; they are talking to someone else about us in order to polish their image and buck up their standing in the polls.
The descriptions of African American communities that I’m seeing in mass media don’t reflect our communities and our experiences on the ground. I often try to find myself within their narratives and I soon throw up my hands, realizing that I’m just not there.
The Trump campaign has gone from describing Black communities as backward webs of criminal pathology to be feared, and who are dragging the country down, to describing us as pathetic victims of Democratic Party “racism”, who are to be pitied for our alleged poor political choices over the past half century. He tells us we have poor education, we are unemployed, and that we can’t walk down the streets of our neighborhoods for fear of violent crime.
Trump initially used the narrative of criminal pathology in order to scare white voters. He, within his party, was not alone in doing this. Trump now uses the narrative of the pathological victim in his attempt to demonstrate that he’s not a racist, that he actually cares about black people and that he is trying to reach out to African American voters. Both narratives — criminal pathology and pathological victim — are mere caricatures that do not capture the human experience of African Americans.
In some ways the recent rhetoric of the Trump campaign sounds like a comical parody of what many Black and white politicians in the Democratic Party have been doing for years. Their descriptions of African American lives, and of African American experiences, have been one-sidedly focused on pity, helplessness and victimization. The rhetoric from both parties feels like a cardboard cutout image.
There are two things politicians should try to avoid if they are serious about describing African American experiences: (1) don’t try to sugar-coat things or claim that racial disparity is a thing of the past. We know better. Those of us involved in public policy keep up with the research on these things. Those who are not will refuse to have their day-to-day experiences explained away by some armchair commentator who is merely observing from a distance.
One should also (2) not focus singularly on problems and deficiencies. Despite all that one might hear and read in the news, we haven’t come this far without developing a healthy set of survival skills. Those skills have been severely tested over the past 45 years, under conditions that are more insidious, in some respects, than the conditions in the previous 120 years of post-emancipation lynchings, Jim Crow segregation and the destabilizing effects of mass migration. The recent 45 years may have been more insidious, in many ways, because of their subtlety. Greater visibility in mass media, entertainment and in government has tended to gloss over the depth and breadth of the underlying crisis.
In terms of the two political parties, many of us are well aware that over the past 50 years, one party has taken our votes for granted because the other party has been writing us off and using us as scapegoats to gin up fear in southern and suburban voters. The recent sudden, and rather awkward, change of rhetoric in the latter party does not change that reality. Neither political party has behaved in a way that inspires confidence.
In contrast to the images from politicians and mass media African American experiences and communities, as I have known them, are more like the Blues and the Negro Spirituals: there is struggling and there is suffering, but there is also resilience. People, as we often like to say, are “tryin’ to make a dollar outta fifteen cents.” The resilience of African Americans is reflected in our strong social networks, our vibrant faith-based communities (which includes, by the way, Islam), and the often unacknowledged talent and skills within our neighborhoods. Despite what one might see in popular media we also have a healthy dose of intergenerational pride, tradition and dignity.
The pathology narratives and the rhetoric of pity, which come from both political parties, do not resonate with many African Americans. Politicians will continue to say whatever they want to say about us, they’ve been doing it for more than 240 years. They will continue to talk over, around and about us, without ever really including us in the conversation — there is nothing new in that.
The images they project will always be inaccurate, distorted and incomplete unless they focus first and foremost on the resilience of African Americans and present a more accurate and balanced portrayal of our family life, our social networks and our faith-based communities.
C. Matthew Hawkins taught in the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and in the History Department of Carlow University. He also taught in Imani Christian Academy in East Hills. He is currently in seminary in Baltimore for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.