First Lady Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” line at the 2016 Democratic Convention gave me chills– albeit for different reasons than it did the many liberals who have quoted it like sacred scripture over the past two years. Though my feelings about her husband may be as complex as a DNA strand, my love for Mrs. Obama has always been a much easier thing to grasp and, at times, defend, but knowing how that particular remark would be used to silence necessary rancor made the political differences between the two of us difficult to ignore.
Today, her statement feels like a gut punch—especially when it’s quoted to call for the fool’s game that is “civility.”
Set against the backdrop of the latest xenophobic nightmare to come from the Trump White House, the decision of a Virginia restaurant to deny service to it’s Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been denounced not only by members of her own party, but by members of the press, as well as pundits and politicians from the other side of the aisle who are uncomfortable with the idea of violating Mrs. Obama’s famed mantra.
Though both of the country’s major political parties have been shaped by rampant scandals, dishonesty and prejudice (via the behavior of individuals and pieces of legislation) alike, “going high” has been a consistent and useless liberal talking point for many years. While the GOP has seized ground to claim moral authority via it’s relationship to Evangelical Christianity, the Democrats have taken great pride in the notion that they aren’t as bigoted as the opposition. Considering that’s a pathetically low bar to clear, think of this as the equivalent as awarding themselves a participant ribbon.
The idea that unapologetic bigotry and White ethnocentrism can be defeated by congeniality or lukewarm messages of tolerance is not only frightening in terms of naiveté, it’s a dangerous misrepresentation of who the Democratic Party has been for decades: both a safe haven for liberal racism and a mirror into the soul of the dangerous “white moderate” that refuses to be uncomfortable enough to recognize this country’s ills.
A tweet from former Education Secretary Arne Duncan perfectly encapsulates both of those things:
Duncan actually dares to draw an analogy between the actions of the Red Hen staff and the sort of race-based oppression that Huckabee Sanders currently works to uphold and reinvigorate. If the one-time Chicago Public Schools’ Superintendent better understood just how the legacy of Jim Crow impacted the majority of the students who were once subject to his leadership, perhaps he wouldn’t compare a minor inconvenience for a privileged woman to a code of law that found African-Americans imprisoned, assaulted or worse for daring to use public restrooms and water fountains.
Reactions like this, as well that cringe worthy piece from the Washington Post’s editorial board and comments from Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) are a master class in misplaced priorities at best, and craven indifference in the face of actual suffering at worst.
The Huckabee Sanders snub came days after First Lady Melania Trump created a minor (by Trumpian standards) scandal after wearing a jacket that read, “I don’t really care, do u” to go meet with children in Texas. I watched in horror as folks that most certainly should know better struggled to accept the likelihood that Mrs. Trump was commenting on the most recent immigration news, by swapping her typical pricey designer duds for a $40 Zara coat to go meet with children.
Like the fuss over late night host Samantha Bee’s explicit word choice in a bit about Ivanka Trump, the reaction to these incidents speaks to how we have been trained to believe in the innocence of white women and to protect them accordingly. Many people fail fully connect someone who married Donald Trump, his dutiful First Daughter, nor his most visible mouthpiece with the values that each of them uphold on a daily basis—as if Mrs. Trump’s lack of palpable romantic chemistry with her husband means that she’s a damsel in distress. While it is entirely possible that she does suffer at the hands of her deplorable partner, it is absurd to assume that she doesn’t share any of his beliefs and no reason the believe she’s opposed to the suffering of anyone harmed by his antics.
Huckabee Sanders and the women of the First Family aren’t child soldiers to be pitied, they are chief among those who uphold systems of disenfranchisement. Their gender does not absolve them of guilt and their behavior runs contrary the widely held belief that women are inherently more empathetic or, well, civil.
Absent social and political consequences, there is little hope that those who work for and in willful alignment with President Trump’s agenda will ever simply come around to the superior-by-a-low-standard values of the other party. Pictures of babies stripped from immigrant parents will hold little sway with those who voted with the hope that such a thing would happen.
I’ve said as much countless times over the years and I’ll continue to do so: while there is little to be admired about the GOP, there is something to be said for their willingness to speak with their chests. They rarely stand down when critiqued for racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of bigotry. Meanwhile, too many voices from the political left would sooner apologize for stepping on ants than do the actual work of upholding their own so-called values. A rare exception is Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has earned the honorarium “Auntie Maxine” for being one of the few unapologetic, consistent and clear voices of conviction speaking out against the president and his acolytes.
Civility serves our current political climate as much as using the proper fork at dinner helps to eradicate global hunger. Manners and hospitality may be effective in building a bridge between neighbors squabbling over a parking spot, but mean less than nothing when it comes to holding members of the Trump administration accountable for their wrongdoing. To demand civility from people of color is particularly despicable, considering that our experiences in the United States are defined largely by the extent to which we have been denied anything resembling kindness or understanding.
Where do Black people go to be treated with civility when they step outside of the confines of their own communities? For those of us who are female, queer, trans, non-Christian, non-binary…it can be elusive even there. What is the value of civility to a Mexican woman who has had her infant daughter or teenaged son stripped from her hands because she is beholden to a broken system of immigrant labor/abuse that the United States relies upon and shuns all at once?
The average person in this country knows very little about the impact of racism on our physical and emotional health–and that’s before you factor in how gender, sexual orientation and class can both exacerbate that trauma and deliver additional ones at home and beyond. The fact that most of us who suffer from these factors can’t explain exactly how this stuff penetrates our bones and spirits makes it easier for those who dare force civility down our throats to make light of that suffering and these same people are rarely moved when they are presented with facts and figures.
As such, people of color have a particular responsibility to reject civility so as to not provide comfort to those who have made our lives uncomfortable from the point of birth. Any white so-called “ally” worth their salt will do the same.
Those who claim to oppose the misdeeds of the current White House (and the last one) do great harm by asking that the most disenfranchised among us continue to turn the other cheek so that we can bear the lash from another angle, again and again. This is what the United States has consistently demanded of people who have been marginalized on the basis of gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation, income, etc.: articulate your concerns in tones and at times deemed appropriate by those who benefit most from your oppression. That’s not civility, that’s abuse.
To “go high” is to go towards progress, towards justice and towards freedom. If it makes the enemy comfortable, then you’re heading in the wrong direction.
Jamilah Lemieux is CASSIUS’ VP of Programming. She tweets: @jamilahlemieux.