It had been this way since the founding of the republic. Whenever a threatening moment of Black empowerment arose, white backlash followed. The pattern repeated itself during abolitionism and Reconstruction in the nineteenth century to the demonstrations of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century and the election of a Black president in the twenty-first century.
Since that historic election, the existential threat to white patriarchal hegemony has only grown stronger. White Christians, who accounted for eight out of ten Americans at the nation’s bicentennial, have now become a minority in this country. White birth rates have declined. Nonwhite immigrant communities have swelled. The population of native Spanish speakers has quadrupled in four decades. The Asian American population has grown more rapidly than any other demographic group in the nation. And gays and lesbians have won the freedom to marry in all fifty states. The long-standing institutions that maintained social hierarchy are slowly crumbling. And America’s changing demographics appear to be placing the nation on a seemingly irreversible path toward a blacker and browner future. After an unbroken string, two centuries long, of white men in charge of our government, the line of succession was ruptured by a Black president, then challenged by a white woman who received more votes than her white male opponent, and then threatened by the election of a Black woman of Jamaican and Indian descent. But most threatening of all is the report from the census bureau that more than half of all children in America are now Black or brown, and the projection that by 2044, white Americans will no longer be the majority of the US population.
By the time in late May that demonstrators began to assemble in the streets beyond Minneapolis to protest the killing of George Floyd, it was already too late to hold back the tide. The vanguard of a new emerging majority was marching through cities, shutting down traffic, taking over buildings, and demanding disruptive, revolutionary change to overturn the status quo. Conservatives disparaged them as “shock troops” preparing to initiate an assault on traditional America, but they were not “outside agitators” from some foreign land. They were real Americans, no less so than the venerated white farmers of the heartland. In some protests, you could find the mainstream party activists who helped Democrats win the popular vote in all but one of the presidential elections of the previous three decades. In other protests, you could find radical insurgents who abhorred the dominant political parties and wanted to dismantle the entire corrupt system. In many protests, you could find both groups represented. They were Black and brown and white; young and old; rich and poor; Democrat, independent, socialist; and yes, some Republicans; and they were more multicultural than any previous movement for racial justice in American history. But much like the ancient shield and spear paradox, the irresistible force of inevitable change was about to confront the immovable object of determined resistance.
This is a story about the second half of 2020—a time when many of our nation’s leaders and our media confidently assured us that America was experiencing a long-overdue racial reckoning that would force the nation and its people to reexamine their behavior. But in 2020, as before, with every step toward racial progress, it became abundantly clear that a significant percentage of white America was deeply concerned about the changing complexion of the country.
White America’s concern was not new. Decades earlier, James Baldwin described it as a “panic-stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned.” This apprehension created an opportunity for cynical political leaders to exploit those fears for personal political gain. For years, these leaders had developed racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic laws and policies, often hidden behind ostensibly neutral language, to slow down the inexorable rise of the emerging majority. Suddenly, in 2020, the threat they had long anticipated was beginning to materialize right in front of them, on their living room television screens.
Some responded with predictable and hypocritical demagoguery about law and order. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” President Donald Trump tweeted the day before I was arrested. His words were stolen from racist Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who threatened Negroes with dogs and shotguns during the height of the civil rights protests in 1967. Others, like a seventeen-year-old Trump supporter from a small town in northern Illinois, would respond by crossing state lines with an illegal firearm and killing two protesters. An age-old tradition of white rage found a volatile accelerant in the toxic, symbiotic relationship between president and his devotees. A leader, desperate for reelection, needed a new enemy to fight, and his most fanatical supporters, desperate for validation of their beliefs, were all too willing to help.
Over the course of the election year, the president took unprecedented steps to divide the country, engaging a powerful minority of fearful whites in a last-ditch race against time to stop the progress of newly empowered people of color and their allies. Eight years of white resentment to President Obama and nearly four years of white backlash under President Trump had already immersed America in a cold civil war. Daily skirmishes were broadcast on social media and television, from the Black bird-watcher in New York’s Central Park to a Black barbecue in Oakland, California’s Lakeside Park. But through it all, many of us suspected that a larger and more dangerous battle loomed beyond the horizon.
The summer months of 2020 would usher in the most racially divided period in America since the spring and summer of 1968. On the very first day of June, the president, already angered by reports that he had hidden in a bunker during recent protests, was determined to project a sense of strength. By the end of the day, Black Lives Matter protesters across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park were violently removed. In a stunning display of reckless judgment, US forces tear-gassed hundreds of peaceful protesters live on national television. Minutes later, the president and his top advisers walked out of the White House, across the street, and through a now empty park to stand in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the president posed for a photo opportunity with a copy of the Holy Bible.
Of course, there was nothing sacred about the spectacle of a famously irreligious president gassing innocent civilians to stage a photo op holding a Bible he did not read at a church he did not attend, but the president’s white evangelical supporters remained faithful to their leader. They had already stood by their leader as he told more than twenty thousand documented lies in office. They were not about to abandon him just for attacking a group of Black Lives Matter protesters.
In the meantime, the ordinary functioning of daily life in America continued to be disrupted. Despite the hasty effort by some governors to reopen their states, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic worsened in the summer and forced the cancellation of events all across the country. For the first time in memory, both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention were effectively canceled and held online. And throughout the summer, I covered several more racial justice protests and lamented the loss of more Black people to COVID.
As the pandemic proceeded, the racial inequities driving the overlapping crises grew more apparent. On the first Friday in June, the Labor Department reported a significant disparity in the jobless rate as Black unemployment reached a record high for May while the white unemployment rate dropped. That same afternoon, the president denied the existence of systemic racism while also claiming he had a plan to fix it. “Our country is so strong, and that’s what my plan is,” he said. Despite the glaring racial inequality in unemployment, access to health care, coronavirus deaths, and police profiling, top administration officials confirmed this view. The president’s national security adviser and economic adviser both flatly claimed that they did not believe in systemic racism, and the president’s only Black cabinet member, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, dismissed the question by saying, “I grew up in a time when there was real systemic racism.”
Dodging the question would not quell the uprising. One day after the president denied the existence of systemic racism, half a million protesters, according to the New York Times, turned out in nearly 550 venues throughout the United States. By July, a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested that twenty-six million people had participated in demonstrations across the country. Friends and family members I had known for years who had no political inclinations and had never walked a picket line were suddenly marching through streets, holding up signs, and chanting the names of Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Elijah McClain. Social media pages turned black in solidarity with the cause. And even white people were walking through the streets of New York with “Black Lives Matter” face masks and T-shirts. It was the largest movement in American history, the Times reported, but as quickly as it generated new supporters, it also inflamed old opponents.
Throughout the summer, the president continued to fan the flames of racial resentment. He borrowed the problematic language of white grievance from Richard Nixon to tweet about a “SILENT MAJORITY.” He condemned bipartisan efforts to rename military bases that honored Confederate generals. He retweeted a video of a supporter chanting “White power” at a Florida retirement community. He tried to scare white voters with warnings that Democrats would “totally destroy the beautiful suburbs.” He resurrected the birther campaign that originally propelled his war on Barack Obama with a baseless new attack on Senator Kamala Harris, arguing she “doesn’t meet the requirements” to be vice president. And he invited a St. Louis couple who had previously threatened Black Lives Matter protesters at gunpoint to deliver a prime-time speech at his Republican National Convention.
Despite all the insults and attacks, the president still had the audacity to brag in October that “nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump.” The remarks came in the same debate where he told a Black moderator, “I am the least racist person in this room.” But, sadly, his words were consistent with his previous boastful exaggerations about his relationship with the community. Earlier in the year, he claimed that “I made Juneteenth very famous” and that “nobody had ever heard of it” before he came along, even though African Americans in Texas had been celebrating the day when slavery ended for 155 years. Given Trump’s record, it was easy to see why he fell short of his wildly unrealistic goals for Black votes. During the 2016 campaign, he had promised his supporters that “at the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African American vote.” Instead, in 2020 he received only 8 to 12 percent of the Black vote, according to exit polls and voter surveys.
Trump’s failure to connect with Black voters was not a surprise. Donald Trump never made any serious effort to reach Black voters. He was the first president since Warren Harding not to speak to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And throughout four years in office, he never visited a Black community for an open Black event. Even in the final stretch of the 2020 campaign, he refused to condemn the white extremist group that called itself the Proud Boys, and he issued an executive order banning diversity trainers from even discussing racial bias. In reality, his campaign was almost entirely geared toward motivating his base of predominantly white voters. Still, he did attempt a last- minute, transparently perfunctory effort to appeal to African Americans by soliciting and exploiting the support of a handful of Black male rappers who had no political experience. This ploy was destined to fail. Despite the overhyped claims from a small but vocal group of Black Trump supporters, the Democratic ticket was never in danger of losing a significant percentage of the Black vote in 2020. In fact, the real purpose of Trump’s outreach was to depress Black turnout for Democrats in a few targeted cities in swing states and to provide political cover for white voters anxious about casting their ballot for a man who was almost universally despised by African Americans.
As summer turned into fall, the general election campaign turned out to be relatively brief and anticlimactic. Considering the rescheduled party conventions and a canceled presidential debate, the most dramatic moments took place away from the campaign trial. This first occurred when the president who spent the entire year denying the seriousness of the pandemic suddenly found himself stricken by coronavirus. In a bizarre sequence of events that illustrated his privilege and isolation from ordinary Americans, the president was airlifted by helicopter from the White House to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and given access to the nation’s top doctors and latest therapies. Once he had begun to recover, he flew back to the executive mansion on Marine One and ripped off his mask for a photo op on the South Portico of the White House. It was exactly the wrong message to communicate to the American public, and it would set the tone for a breathtaking surge in COVID cases in the coming months.
The second and final dramatic moment of the campaign took place in the Senate, when Republicans, who refused even to hold a hearing on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 because it was nine months too close to an election, voted to confirm Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to the same court with just eight days left in the presidential election. The hypocrisy was stunning even for Republicans. “I want you to use my words against me,” Senator Lindsey Graham said during a March 2016 discussion on Merrick Garland, when Republicans were still pretending that they had a consistent approach to government. “If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say ‘Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.’” A Republican president was elected in 2016. And a vacancy occurred in the last year of his first term. And the Lindsey Graham of 2020 refused to listen to the Lindsey Graham of 2016.
What changed during those four years was the presidency of Donald Trump and his party’s realization that there would be few or no consequences for antidemocratic efforts to perpetuate white supremacy. Elected without a majority of the popular vote, Trump governed by discrediting any institution of democracy that stood in his way. He became the avatar of whiteness in America, and only he could legitimately represent its people. “L’état, c’est moi,” French king Louis XIV is attributed to have said. “I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” said Trump.
Republicans published a hundred-page autopsy in the wake of their 2012 election loss and vowed to “modernize” the party with outreach efforts to Blacks and Latinos and young people, but after Trump’s victory in 2016, they discovered they didn’t have to bother. Instead of building a more diverse and inclusive party, they could redirect their focus to the party’s base of angry white voters. And since many Republicans believed themselves to be ordained by God, any challenge to their rule was inherently illegitimate and would be crushed by the good (white) people of America. Asked if he was concerned about the prospect of impeachment in early December 2018, Trump responded, “I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”
When the 2020 presidential campaign finally came to an end on November 3, the country was about to see just how true that was. The real drama—a crisis of democracy—was about to begin.
Triggered by safety concerns around the coronavirus pandemic, and given the opportunity to vote by mail, Americans cast their ballots in record numbers for the fall election, but there was no clear victor when I went to bed at five in the morning on Wednesday, November 4. The country waited for several sleepless nights until the major news outlets projected a winner four days after the polls closed. Many in the nation breathed a sigh of relief, but it would take much longer to convince the outgoing president that he had lost. Four states—Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin— received the bulk of his attention and criticism. Within those states, he focused on four cities where he claimed, without evidence, that votes were “fraudulently or illegally obtained,” and he demanded that millions of votes in those places be thrown out. Those cities, not surprisingly, were Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, each with a Black population significantly larger by percentage than the proportion of the nation’s overall Black population.
It took three difficult and draining weeks for the administration simply to allow the ordinary transition process for a new president to begin. It would take three additional weeks and dozens of fruitless lawsuits before the Republican Senate majority leader would finally recognize the election of the new president. All the while, members of the outgoing president’s party conspired with him to perpetuate his farcical conspiracy theories that the election had been stolen. For those who had thought the election would put an end to the long national nightmare of Donald Trump, they were mistaken. His ego would not permit him to be chastened or humbled in failure.
Trump, the man, had been temporarily defeated, but Trumpism, itself, was far from vanquished. He received more than seventy-four million votes, and he won the majority of votes in half the states of the union. Prior to 2020, no other candidate in history had received even seventy million votes. Yet after four years of chaos, crisis, controversy, scandal, resignations, indictments, arrests, impeachment, bigotry, and division, and after eight months of gross negligence and mismanagement of a pandemic that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, seventy-four million people still felt comfortable voting for him. That, in and of itself, was an indictment of Trump’s America, even in his opponent’s historic moment of victory.
In the same way I knew in my bones as a college student that the old white Southerners I served at the clothing store in Georgia did not miraculously abandon their racist beliefs when legal segregation ended, I also knew that seventy-four million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 would not experience some transformative epiphany when Joe Biden, or any other Democrat, took office. If they weren’t all racists, they were at least racist-adjacent in their willingness to prioritize some other alleged political objective above the offense of Trump’s racism. Those voters and their children and grandchildren would remain a troubling presence in America for decades to come.
Despite the gracious calls for unity and talk of “reaching across the aisle,” there was never a serious possibility to do this so long as tens of millions of Americans continued to support one man’s delusional narcissism and hundreds of lawmakers in his party continued to enable him. That perspective helped me clarify why the overused term “reckoning” felt so woefully inappropriate to describe the drama of America’s racial crisis in 2020. A true reckoning involves a settling of accounts and an obligation to repay the debts of the past. Yet nothing in the behavior of the conquered or the conqueror in American politics indicated that the country was ready to do this. And nothing in the outcomes of the four major crises of 2020 suggested that the nation appreciated the gravity of the challenge before it. At the end of the year, America remained just as divided as it was at the beginning, and the fundamental fault line that separated us was still the same issue that had torn us apart since 1776—the issue of race.
A month after the election, the vast majority of Republicans still refused to recognize that Trump lost the race by an overwhelming seven million votes and lost the electoral college by a decisive 306–232 margin. As the lame-duck president defiantly telephoned Republican government officials in Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania to solicit their help in overturning the will of the people, one of his former primary opponents—hoping to position himself as the heir to the legacy of Trumpism—even volunteered to represent the president by arguing his case in the US Supreme Court. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was willing to defend the very bully who once called his wife ugly and insinuated that his father had been an accomplice in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It demonstrated a grotesque perversion of masculinity that these tough-talking, self-professed patriots would more willingly fight to disenfranchise vulnerable Black and brown voters in America’s cities than to fight against a white supremacist bully in their own midst.
The Republican-dominated Supreme Court, with three Trump appointees on its bench, rejected the case Cruz would have argued. Trump’s own attorney general was forced to admit that there was no evidence of fraud that would change the outcome of the election. And the Republican governor and secretary of state in Georgia both defended the integrity of their state’s election that their Republican president had lost. But, in an indication of how Black progress has always fueled white backlash, Republicans in Georgia immediately announced a new scheme to change the state’s voting laws to reduce turnout in future elections. The party that once fought to open up the franchise to Black voters after the Civil War now manufactured baseless claims of Black voter fraud to justify voter suppression laws.
As the year ended, ten million Americans who had lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic were still unemployed and nearly twelve million were soon expected to be behind on their rent and utility bills, yet the leaders of the president’s party refused to acknowledge the incoming president who would inherit these crises in just a matter of weeks. Then, just when it seemed the troubling year had produced all the drama it could, two new stories emerged in the criminal justice system. An Ohio sheriff ’s deputy, who was searching for someone else, shot and killed a law-abiding twenty-three-year-old Black man in his front door as he returned to his home in Columbus with Subway sandwiches after a dentist’s appointment. Casey Goodson’s grandmother and two toddlers witnessed his grisly shooting near the door. And, in another part of the country, the Chicago Police Department fought to prevent the release of body camera footage showing officers raiding the wrong house and forcing a Black woman to stand naked in her living room while they searched. Anjanette Young had to sue the city to force the release of the evidence. It was as if the nation’s law enforcement officers had learned nothing from the year of protests after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
On December 31, 2020, none of the four crises that defined the year had been resolved. Black people remained hardest hit by all of them. We were still disproportionately hospitalized and killed by coronavirus. We were still more likely to be unemployed from the lingering recession. We were still far more likely to be shot and killed by police or racially profiled by ordinary citizens. And we were still the primary target of an ongoing political effort to disenfranchise voters and throw away legally cast ballots.
There had been no reckoning.
Despite the groundbreaking election of the nation’s first Black vice president in November 2020, there had been no fundamental or structural change to improve the lives of Black people in the course of the long, historic, and exhausting year. There had been no effort to eliminate the persistent racial disparities in economic conditions, health outcomes, policing, or voting. And, as some leaders called for yet another return to normalcy, I knew there would be a steep price to pay. I knew that we would one day soon find ourselves in yet another crisis of racial upheaval that would prove far more violent and divisive than the last. I knew that the actual day of reckoning was yet to come. I knew that the fragile truce that kept the peace would not last forever. And I knew that America could never fully embrace the richness of the diversity of the twenty-first century until it revisited its dark history and finally came to terms with the unresolved battles of a conflict that many thought had ended in the nineteenth century.
This article has been excerpted from Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America by Keith Boykin. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.