Well, here we are again. With the most consequential presidential election in modern times approaching faster than anybody wants it to, and with the richest and most powerful country in the world threatening to collapse under the weight of its worst and most undemocratic impulses, Black people's reenergized fight for equality could potentially pull America back from the abyss.
In the midst of moral chaos, the fight to validate Black lives once again requires the nation to examine its own ideals in order to definitively answer the age-old question: What kind of a country are we?
Not so long ago we had a stock answer: We are a country that stands for truth, justice and the pursuit of liberty for all. All political parties — Democratic, Republican, Libertarian — claimed these principles as their guiding lights; not to embrace them was heresy, or at least political suicide. Of course there were always huge gaps between the stated goals and reality, and Black people have lived in those gaps for all of our time in this country. Still, the broad public agreement on the importance of the ideals meant something — actually, it's meant everything.
Black people have hope only because of these ideals, because of the ongoing possibility that they might be fulfilled. It's an incredibly tenuous thing to hang a whole future on, but we do it, generation after generation.
We do it understanding that hope is not calm or static. Hope is vigilance, and it is also fury. You have to have hope for a just America in order to feel betrayed by the unjust one. It is a keen sense of betrayal (not nihilism, as conservatives claim) that has been animating this year's street protests and calls for police reform. Black hope today is less patient. In 2020, the demand is that the long arc of the moral universe bend now.
Since May, many white people who have joined the police protests and adopted antiracist views have embraced that impatience as their own, as American. But can they really move an unjust system off its foundation?
For many whites, the ideals of democracy are noble and essential — so long as the caste system is not seriously disrupted. This was Howard Zinn's point in "A People's History of the United States," that real revolution is almost never successful because the American hierarchy, built on color first and wealth second, is too entrenched, too beneficial to too many to be easily dismantled. In Zinn's view, it's the hierarchy, not the journey to justice, that largely defines us.
I think — very uneasily — about the 40-odd percent of Americans unnervingly loyal to President Donald Trump. It's abundantly clear at this point that he is the total antithesis of anything resembling American ideals, the worst white man out there — and his followers don't care! Their ideal America has nothing to do with equality and justice for all, and they're fine with that. They're even proud of it.
Trump's role has been to make acceptable a pride in inequality that since the 1960s has had to be kept secret. Now it is cheered at televised rallies, where attendees boo protesters as unpatriotic and stand up for the Confederacy like a wronged family member.
This is what terrifies anyone not in the Trump camp, that these other white people will not be moved or shamed by appeals of change and justice, or worse, that these 40-percenters are, objectively speaking, the real Americans.
It's easy to condemn Trump for dragging down the country, but there would be no Donald Trump were it not for these 40-percenters who have always been open to his message. His naked white fury is a projection of them, not the other way around, and they like what they see.
What can we do about this America? That's the real question that's been hanging over the country the last four years, the one that must be answered. The strategy of conscientious white folks seems to be simply trying to appeal to everybody's better angels, which Democrats essentially did during their convention in August. It's a strategy doomed to fail. You can be antiracist all day long, but if you can't call out other white folk for their racism — because they're friends or family, or because you think they actually have a point — then little will change.
As usual, Black people saw it all coming, from 40,000 feet up, saw it the heady moment Barack Obama got elected the first time, when Republicans declared in the aftermath of the inauguration, before Obama had done anything of note, that their goal would be to make him a one-term president. Anti-Obama-ism — a code for anti-Blackness — quickly took root and in eight years totally remade the Republican Party, or revealed what it always was.
It was in this shift that Trump found his footing, and the new GOP base found a figurehead. Black people understand that at any given time in history, a good percentage of white people are wedded to anti-Blackness, in one way or another; we always hoped that the percentage in the body politic, like a viral load, would stay below a certain number.
Today, the percentage has hit a dangerous level. The best-case scenario is that the percentage of fair-minded white people — and fair-minded people of all colors — has risen at the same rate, and that their numbers are enough to soundly defeat Trump at the polls in November.
Even if this is case, the way forward will not be easy. A brewing clash of ideals has already turned violent with the appearance of armed white militias "helping" the police quell protests and defending property from alleged rioters, with Trump not so subtly urging them on.
At the heart of this latest battle of Who We Are, still at the bottom of the hierarchy but leading the elusive way forward, are Black people and their quest for the country of ideals that America must be. This time the quest isn't symbolic or abstract, or largely limited to Black folks; we all need to finally get there.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Los Angeles Times Opinion.