I now live in a tiny state whose motto is “Hope.” When the pandemic struck, our governor reached out to RISD grad Shepard Fairey with a request to produce another of his patented images. He promptly delivered one that is dubbed RI Angel of Hope. Fairey’s Angel is not a bad piece by any means, though some wags have asked whether the angel is meant to be a sly representation of our feisty governor herself.
Unfortunately for Fairey, no subsequent work will ever carry anything close to the emotional resonance of his famous Obama “Hope” poster. And that’s plainly because so many of us were caught up in the thrill, the joy and the tears, of Barack Obama’s triumph—of that unforgettable moment in Chicago’s Grant Park when it really did feel that this sad old country had finally turned a corner with the election of an African-American president.
All of that seems very far away now. But these days I find myself asking white friends and colleagues to remember what they felt then. I do this precisely to invite them to consider what’s wrong with sentimental liberalism. And yes, I mean to be provocative when I do this: I will do almost anything to shake white complacency and challenge white naiveté when it comes to the persistence of institutional racism and the illusion that the worst of it is safely behind us now. The “postracial America” illusion—an illusion that Obama himself promoted—is an illusion that kills. In order for Black people to live and thrive, the illusion itself must be killed with all deliberate speed.
It won’t be easy. After all, this is the same country that dismissed and ignored the Kerner Commission’s report (which concluded that inner-city violence was driven by poverty and institutional racism… in 1968) even before the ink was dry.
With an openly racist president and packs of racist pundits already baying for law and order—and with progressive mayors like New York’s De Blasio along with liberal governors feeling rising pressure to lean into the demand for crackdowns—it’s already apparent that the grief and rage of the Black community won’t even be allowed to remain the central focus for much longer. Instead there will be endless stories about the role being played by Antifa anarchists, about the self-destructive behavior of people burning down their own neighborhoods and defying social distancing rules, and (of course) about how blue lives matter, too.
Once these narratives take center stage there will be no discussion of the white riots that helped to create the American apartheid in the first place. There will be no excavation of the roots of American policing in slave patrols. There will be no examination of what can properly be characterized as the decades-long white looting of Black communities in the form of blockbusting, predatory lending, redlining, poverty wages, etc. Nobody will be talking about the white destruction of property on a planetary scale by means of extractive industry and the near-fatal wounding of our Mother Earth.
Worst of all, we will hear far too many liberals—religious liberals most certainly among them—mouthing the myth that all the rancor and disorder will magically disappear with the departure of the Provocateur-in-Chief from the Oval Office.
Princeton’s Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. nailed this illusory way of thinking in a comment given to the Washington Post:
“We blame it on Trump when in fact this is the culmination of 40 years of a particular ideology that has produced unimaginable wealth inequity and deepening racial divides and despair…The only thing Trump has done is broken the implicit rule of manners around how one pursues these policy initiatives. He doesn’t have a dog whistle, he has a fog horn.”
Does this gloomy assessment mean that I make no room for hope? Not at all, but I do make a fundamental distinction between hope and wishful thinking. Not to get all theological, but real hope is never less than fully realistic about the lethal capacities of the principalities and powers that are arrayed against God’s justice. Real hope is anchored in the belief that justice will prevail but not without mortal struggle and not without the overthrow of oppressive structures. To be authentically hopeful is to be fully enlisted in this mortal struggle. To be hopeful is to be resolutely faithful. Nothing less will suffice.