Our youngest daughter snapped this shot of me, one year ago today, as we waited to go on a morning tour of U.C. Berkley. It was the first stop in our search for the right college to launch her into the future. I was journaling outside California Memorial Stadium, casting around for something that might lift our spirits.
The huge sports complex was an awesome metaphor for the day. Our tour guide informed us that the stadium is bisected by one of the most dangerous fault lines on earth. Some time ago it was retrofitted at great expense to withstand a major seismic event. During an earthquake it will split apart, both sections remaining intact, thereby minimizing structural damage and presumably curbing the death-toll. So say the engineers, and it’s comforting to believe them.
America’s presidential elections are grand sporting events. Since my youth I’ve heard people talk about Republicans and Democrats as if they’re arch-rivals in football. The drawbacks of this two-team league became blatantly clear to many of us when they nominated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Following the primaries I encouraged friends to become Independents. Even if we voted for the lesser of two evils, de-registering from these parties sends a message that we aren’t happy with the system.
People get so caught up in this big game, but it’s a shitty substitute for free elections. Hell, it isn’t even conducted on a level playing field. The idea of competitive races has been replaced by political gerrymandering. Our electoral college gives some citizens more influence over who becomes president. Depending on where a person lives, their vote may be worth several times more or less than other Americans.
In grade school this worried me, yet teachers assured us that our federal government is rarely controlled by someone who was not elected by a majority of citizens. That deviation has happened two out of five times during our daughter’s lifetime. Her childhood was overseen by the decisions of George W. Bush (who received 543,816 fewer votes than his opponent). Her college years will be shaped by the decisions of a man who received 2,864,974 less.
It’s been 140 years since such a large majority of Americans were denied their choice for president. For perspective on what that means we have to go back to 1876, when our country was still fresh with the memory of civil war. Republicans had been newly minted as the Party of Lincoln (who established U.C. Berkely by signing the Land Grant Act, three years before his assassination). Dixie was dominated by Democrats, many of whom longed to revive an economy built on racism. The Democrats won the election, yet traded away that victory in exchange for the removal of U.S. troops from the South, a military presence that was placed there in part to ensure that freed slaves received equal treatment. Is there a correlation between that deal and the fact that over 4,000 lynchings occurred between 1877 and 1950? Civil rights advocate Bryan Stevenson frames the issue succinctly. “I don’t think slavery ended” he says. “I think it evolved.”
We didn’t hear much about that evolutionary process where I grew up in southern Appalachia. I assume that’s true for folks who were raised elsewhere. Perhaps we chose to gloss over that tragic part of our past rather than discuss the details. Whatever the reason, by the time my buds and I rolled into high school during the 70s, we’d lost our sense of context.
For us the image of defiant rebel — compelling, especially in youth — was often wrapped in confederate packaging. It was a kick to sport the stars and bars, or stand around a keg hollering “the South’s gonna do it again!” Few of us connected such leisurely rituals with a conflict that terrorized people and ripped communities apart. We knew slavery was bad, but it was relegated to the distant past and we didn’t think much about it. The closest we white boys came to the topic was when it was incorporated into racist jokes. We didn’t consider ourselves racists, of course, because our extended group of friends included African Americans.
It wasn’t until last year that I learned about the 1876 election from news commentator Rachel Maddow. Here’s what she said at the end of her segment comparing that election with 2016.
“Stick a pin in this popular vote thing. Anybody who tells you that’s not going to matter – for sure, that’s definitely not going to matter – doesn’t know what they’re talking about, because we’ve never seen anything like this in the modern era.”
Maddow’s message was prophetic for the first part of Trump’s presidency. White supremacists have expanded their presence in the public sphere, emboldened by the perception that his administration is open to their aims. His first chief strategist, Steve Bannon, publicly admitted that he provided a platform for the Alt-Right in his media franchise. Interest in ethnic nationalism has risen along with the number of hate crimes. And perhaps most telling, given where Maddow stuck her pin, we are witnessing a high-profile debate over confederate symbols and monuments in which Trump and his minions are repeatedly blurring the line of social justice.
The enormity of this divide was already clear on 11/9. A huge cloud was hanging over us, certainly for our daughter and other young folks who were a few months shy of being able to vote in the election. Her values are so different from those embodied by a sexual assailant who’s popular with bigots and big oil companies seeking to nix environmental protections.
Midway through the tour, our guide took a call on her phone and informed us we’d be taking a different route due to a student demonstration. I thought that seemed odd, since such events are a regular part of life at most colleges. But this wasn’t just any protest. It was 1,500 high school students, marching in mass to a gathering place on campus, chanting “Not Our President!”
We paused on the steps beside Sproul Hall, the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement during the 60s. This was the spot where student activist Mario Savio gave his pivotal speech about the political machine. Our guide was shouting, recounting the history, yet we could barely hear her because of the roar of protesters at the center of campus and the sound of helicopters overhead.
Today’s youth will not tolerate the old soft-shoe of human oppression. Will the rest of us stand with them? It’s always tempting for adults to pin our hopes on the kids; yet freedom from old bullies requires learning across generations. Long live our revolutionary union.