Peering Into the Souls of White Folk
In our era of creeping wokeness, in the coasts' liberal precincts, the average black person can feel like a celebrity. Only, sometimes the celebrity it seems you are is Leslie Jones.
It's not just the national headlines. It's the local stories, the weird stuff. An interracial couple was stabbed by a self-proclaimed white supremacist in Olympia, Washington. The suspect, the police told CNN, "made many, many references to racist things."
One many isn't enough for this racist epoch. You've got white men plotting to kill Somalis in Kansas. In Milwaukee, a black sheriff stands at the right hand of totalitarianism, shoulder to shoulder with Trump, talking about how it's time for pitchforks and torches. And last month, in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven where I've bought hot dogs, an ex-con from the "European Kindred" gang ran over and murdered a black kid.
My home is Oregon, everyone's favorite Northwest liberal enclave. Never mind the fact that it entered the union as a state that prohibited blacks, slave or free. I'm not from 'round these parts, and helping out with Portland's diversity statistics makes for an awkward jostle. I've traveled around the state, to coastal towns where every voter is white and to parts of the interior where men are trying hard to keep it that way. And what I've seen is the spectacle of American conservatism boiling down and separating out, the ugly goop coming to the surface.
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In a Portland courtroom last week a trial wrapped up, a trial of the most white and outraged. The crime involved the seizure of a patch of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed white separatists. I was at the scene of the acts in question, working out of an Idaho-adjacent motel filled with pistol-packin' crackers hopped up on Alex Jones. This was in January, when Donald Trump was ascendant like no American pol in memory, and none of the big-name pundits believed the ascendance was real.
I went to report on the occupation. The closest burg to Malheur was the now unofficially open-carry, washed-up timber town of Burns. As "patriots" from Idaho, Nevada, and far, far beyond clogged the streets and bars, it seemed more guns than people could be counted. Families, neighbors, and friends turned on one another. The sheriff confessed that supporters of lead occupier Ammon Bundy had infiltrated his department. A bartender railed at Oregon's governor for denouncing the occupation: It had given local business its biggest boost in years.
This was an inversion of the typical image of U.S. intervention in international catastrophe. Here were white people on their worst day, guns drawn and pointed at each other. That faraway Asian nation's earthquake, the dusty third-world coup. Here was the Yankee take, and seeing it brought me to a revelation: Do not judge these people, these poorly informed, privileged people.
Ten months later, any judgment of the Malheur events, beyond that of the jury deliberating in that downtown courthouse, seems irrelevant. The presidential campaign has offered up an Oregon-style militia circus coast to coast. It's the active fallout from a campaign of fear. Out by Burns, the radio played a commercial for low-cost tooth replacement. Trump support is kind of like that ad. An indulgence for people experiencing losses that don't show up on the ledger. Like teeth.
I've been out in Oregon, America, listening. There's the plump and gray-haired downstate lady who heard I'd be speaking on the Northwest's hidden hip-hop history and then looked like I'd told her the whole region had caught super-herpes. I have heard from the men who relish the opportunity — when presented — to say the N-word, and the ones the word seems to physically pain. There are more of the former than the latter.
That's flyover Oregon, though. Portland is an honorary member city of the cultural elite. My city can stand in for many places on the blue map: Seattle and San Francisco, Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Maybe even most of the country, given how the election has turned. Any place where white people talk about racism and it's obvious they're talking about everybody but themselves. A roundtable full of white people can listen to themselves diagnosing America's woes and somehow not find this outrageous.
Those rural men who said the N-word? (And by N-word I mean nigger.) They said it to me on the record. People back in the big city, media types, were not keen on hearing it spoken by their country kinfolk. And this is where the conversation breaks down. I want to hear more of old white people's relationship to that word, not less. It makes things clear.
This summer, for the first time, I did Portland's Naked Bike Ride. As a certain sort of celebrity, I can tell you that the ride is liberating. The payoff actually comes after the fact, when you pass an intersection, getting eyed by a cop, and reflect on what it means to have been nude and not arrested in these streets. Would the quirky-cute city allow thousands to congregate and ride if it possessed, say, Chicago's racial diversity? I've seriously gotta wonder.
After the ride, I had a drink with a beautiful stranger I'd met at the ride's end. She gave me a hint of what it must feel like to be in a world growing more exotic and sophisticated at a rate you cannot match. She asked if I was into radical polyamory. I admitted to barely being up on the rudimentary form, then slunk away with my girlfriend. Lovely as this woman was, she has more than once popped into mind while I've watched Trump-rally footage. I think:
It can't be easy for the people with their faces pressed up against the window of a culture that every day is less about them.
Last month I went to see Oregon State play football in Corvallis, an hour and a half south of Portland. I knew before I'd headed out to the game that I planned to stay seated through the national anthem. I threw on a Beavers football jersey as a means of assimilation, drank like a superhero at the tailgate, then trudged in to see the game. One day earlier, the Fraternal Order of Police had endorsed Trump.
About 90 percent of the colored skin in Corvallis that day was on the field. I was still walking up the tunnel to my seat when Oregon State's band began playing the anthem. Immediately, I dropped to one knee. With me in the stadium concourse were a couple dozen people. As I went to Instagram my knee's relationship to the concrete I thought about a bullet to the brain. It's possible I'd been in Oregon too long. Because the wondering — especially through that overlong song — is the thing. The pairs of troopers charged with protecting and serving my interest? I had no clue where they'd stand.
That's what celebrity today in Oregon, America, feels like. Waiting. As painful as the presidential election has been, as unsightly as the Trump-ism reveal has been, it's only getting started. Someday we'll all be woke and owning all our stuff like Leslie. Right now, it feels like it's still a long night.
Don't miss the rest of our 2016 election coverage on Trump's America:
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