As a law student in 2004, I studied the anatomy of one of America’s most brutal inventions: the lynching. I also studied the Black people who led the fight against this form of racial terrorism, specifically Black women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell. By doing so, I felt intimately connected to my ancestors—these impressive social justice crusaders, as well as the men in my family. In 1933, my father was a nine-year-old boy when Marylander George Armwood was brutally tortured and executed before crowds of people. It is a story I belatedly learned from him because it had been buried so deep in his psyche.
In more recent years, thanks largely to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, lynching has become a bigger part of our national conversation. We now know its geography and have a more accurate accounting of its numbers. We can even see soil samples from communities where these brutalities occurred. And just as they existed back then, there are the naysayers, those that say, “let history lie.” Those that say, “What is past is past. Why wake the dead?”
I would tell them that after looking at headlines in this country from just the past couple of weeks, we are in desperate need of this dialogue, as well as the historical markers that have gradually begun to populate the places where lynchings have occurred. Because despite this belated recognition of America’s history of domestic extremism and racial violence, we are living in a country that is as emboldened as ever to harm Black Americans. We are living in the very “American carnage” that Trump predicted in his disturbing inaugural address six years ago.
This is the America I see right now:
I see an America where Mississippi police officers, members of the so-called “Goon Squad,” must be held to account for the torture of two Black men living on the “wrong side” of the river. The graphic details of this attack, as well as its motivating factor—residing with a white woman—are if nothing else an attempted lynching.
I see an America where a best-selling single by a white country artist glorifies the type of vigilante violence that small-town mobs have long waged against Black residents: “Try that in a small town/ Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right/ If you’re looking for a fight.” The song’s music video even features imagery of Columbia, Tennessee’s Maury County Courthouse, the site of Henry Choate’s lynching after he was falsely accused of assaulting a white sixteen-year-old girl.
I see an America where two Black women, Judge Tanya Chutkan and Fulton County DA Fani Willis, are hounded by the most vile, racist threats for their roles in unfolding Trump prosecutions; and where Trump circulates an image on social media appearing to threaten Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg with a baseball bat, while promising imminent “death and destruction.”
I see an America where white boaters incite a riot against a Black riverboat-cruise co-captain for daring to ask them for close to an hour to move their pontoon. While in this last instance, the co-captain was defended by Black onlookers to the incident, what could have happened to this man on the very land where his enslaved ancestors perhaps arrived South by steamboat should shake us all to our core.
These examples all have one thing in common: the notion that there is an audacity on the part of Black Americans to live, to be, and to do their jobs. That there is an audacity on the part of Black Americans to occupy certain spaces—an audacity that must be checked at all costs.
I call this Trump’s America, not because he is the origin of America’s violent racial history, but rather because he is its gleeful instigator and its cheerleader-in-chief. As conservative commentator Charlie Sykes observes, “Donald Trump didn’t invent these darker impulses. They were preexisting conditions, but he found a way to tap into them and bring them out.” From his Obama birther conspiracy, to his continuous egging on of racial violence, Trump has sought ways to delegitimize and denigrate Black people from the moment he stepped onto the national stage.
He’s continued to embolden and inflame our citizenry, including through the loathsome embrace of the white nationalists responsible for Charlottesville, and his campaign of intimidation, harassment, and defamation of black poll workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss. What Trump has accomplished—his major win—is bringing the extremism that has long lived “under the rock of American history,” as Jelani Cobb puts it, and into the mainstream dialogue of American politics. It is no coincidence that in recent years the country has witnessed a surge in hate crimes, including, as Attorney General Merrick Garland states, against “Black and African-Americans, already the group most victimized.”
While Black people are certainly not the sole target of Trump’s rhetoric and the abuse of like-minded mobs, we are one of the greatest tests of the functioning of American democracy. Without us, who were once considered chattel rather than citizens, it is impossible for the country to achieve its more perfect union. If our bodies are battered, if our humanity is denied, this American life cannot possibly survive.