Our Air of Robust Innocence

Shortly after Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris, a Black woman, as his vice presidential running mate, President Trump — ostensibly in the White House briefing room to discuss the coronavirus, which has killed 171,000 Americans in just five months — called Sen. Harris “extraordinarily nasty,” adding that she was “probably nastier even than Pocahontas,” his racist, derogatory nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

And no one was surprised.

Like many Americans this pandemic summer, I have been reading and thinking about what it means to be a person of color in this country. Not a day has gone by that I have not pictured that white police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck as he called out for his mama. Not a day has gone by that I have not imagined the horror of Breonna Taylor’s slow and agonizing death after being shot multiple times, in her own apartment, by Louisville police, and the maddening delay in bringing her killers to justice. Not a day has gone by that I have not considered the overt racism — Charlottesville, the Muslim ban, brown children in cages at our southern border, branding Covid-19 the “China Virus,” and more — that has oozed like a venom from the occupant of the Oval Office.

This summer, reading has served as both my education and my antivenin, and one of the most important books I’ve come across is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson.

In Chapter 8, I learned that when Nazi bureaucrats met in Nuremberg in June 1934, “They were looking to move quickly with their plans for racial separation and purity, and knew that the United States was centuries ahead of them with their anti-miscegenation statutes and race-based immigration bans.” Hitler praised our “near genocide of Native Americans and the exiling to reservations of those who had survived,” and “the Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”

A mere 84 years later, and in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, too many White Americans still maintain this air of robust innocence, all evidence to the contrary.

Consider this: On July 5, the New York Times reported “Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors,” and “Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people, the data shows.” Could this be the reason our president — a man who declared neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “fine people” and whose gut reaction to a Black woman being nominated for vice president was to call her “nasty” and compare her derogatorily to “Pocahontas” — has no interest in a national plan to combat what he calls the “China virus?”

I often hear Trump voters dismiss the idea of systemic racism. George Floyd was killed by a police officer for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Breonna Taylor was shot to death by police inside her apartment on March 13, the same week we went on Covid-19 lockdown, and her killers have still not been brought to justice. As of this writing, 171,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and those deaths are disproportionately people of color.

If this is not systemic, what is?

Some weeks from now, Americans will vote to decide if Donald Trump deserves another venomous four years. What example will we set as the world looks on? Another literal guidebook for Nazi-like regimes, as in 1934, or something new and, in a word, anti-racist?

I leave you with this chilling paragraph from Wilkerson’s book: “Hitler had risen as an outside agitator, a cult figure enamored of pageantry and rallies with parades of people carrying torches that an observer said looked like rivers of fire. Hitler saw himself as the voice of the [people], of their grievances and fears, especially those in the rural districts, as God’s chosen savior, running on instinct. He had never held elected office before.”

Sound familiar?

In November, let’s vote for the democratic America we profess to be. The world will be watching.


If you’re looking for books on race, I’ve recently read and loved the following:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents — Isabel Wilkerson (non-fiction)
Real American — Julie Lythcott-Haims (memoir)
Citizen — Claudia Rankine (memoir)
How to be an Anti-Racist — Ibram X. Kendi (memoir)
The Nickel Boys — Colson Whitehead (fiction)
Brother, I’m Dying — Edwidge Danticat (memoir)
Between the World and Me — Ta’nehisi Coates (memoir)