The black waiter kept quietly coming over to my table as though afraid of being noticed. He knew, as I did, that we lived in an area where civility has long been used to kill and maim and make second-class citizens of people like us. It’s a place where police shot a young black man, paralyzing him for life, lied about the incident, faced no charges or discipline, and not one local official, elected or otherwise, made a fuss about it.
The black waiter in that country-style buffet restaurant kept asking if I wanted a refill while wiping down tables near me that didn’t need cleaning because he had already cleaned them so well. He then leaned in toward me, the only other black person in the place, eyes quickly darting across the restaurant to make sure none of the white patrons could hear what he was desperate to say.
“He called me boy,” he told me, fighting back tears and subtly nodding towards a grizzled older white man in jeans and a T-shirt sitting in a corner booth. “He said, ‘Get me some sweat tea, boy.’”
The hurt in his voice was palpable. I wanted to make a scene but thought better of it, knowing the resulting anger would more likely redound back on him rather than the white man in jeans and T-shirt. It’s the kind of choice black people living in the South have had to make for decades, to swallow daily indignities or risk being blamed for unrest that make the white people around them uncomfortable.
Moments like these remind me that it was civility, not incivility, that helped make Donald Trump president. Barack Obama may have been the most civil man ever appointed to this country’s highest office. His presence—calm, careful, authoritative but not authoritarian—allowed Americans to falsely believe all our racial problems had been solved. That gave moral license to white Americans who had voted for Obama to shift to Trump—they had already proven they couldn’t be racist—after the Republican expertly weaponized their fear and cultural ignorance.
It's worth remembering, too, that atrocities committed during the Obama era did not cause as much backlash as those being committed now. It’s true that what’s occurring under Trump is more extreme and harsher than what came before him, from his policy of stealing children from their parents to his increase of bombings and drone killings in the Middle East that have set new records for civilian deaths.
But the Obama administration was also sued because of its treatment of undocumented immigrants at the border. Activists called the president the "deporter in chief" because of a record-pace of deportations. Disturbing allegations of torture in some immigrant detention facilities that are now surfacing stretch across the Obama and Trump eras. But because Obama never referred to immigrants as an “infestation” or “animals” or “rapists” and “criminals,” many of his allies saw his policies through the lens I did, as an attempt to prove to moderate Republicans that he was serious about enforcement so he could convince enough of them to vote for a more humane immigration policy. It nearly worked with a 2013 reform package that received 68 votes in the Senate but was never brought to the floor in the House by then-Speaker John Boehner.
“Civility” means white liberals telling people of color to empathize with Trump supporters.
That is how civility works in practice in the United States. By “civility,” what is often meant is that you should take your political opponent’s concerns seriously, even when those concerns are built upon falsehoods and harmful stereotypes. “Civility” means that even the most horrible systems of oppression should be dismantled slowly and gradually rather than all at once. “Civility” means white liberals telling people of color to empathize with Trump supporters—even though the most downtrodden Trump supporter has never experienced the economic angst and societal ostracism people of color have suffered since before the founding of this country. They want us to do what that black waiter had to do: Whisper, not roar, about the daily indignities we face, indignities that have been supercharged in the Trump era.
Advocating too fervently and too unapologetically for the vulnerable upsets the social order. It disturbs those in positions of comfort and power. While good-hearted Americans will tolerate high concentrations of poverty and mass incarceration and students of color trapped in hellholes of schools—and the world’s lone superpower supporting a multi-year, Saudi-led military operation that has created one of the worst modern-day humanitarian crises in Yemen—causing the comfortable the slightest bit of discomfort will never be tolerated the same way.
And so black athletes silently kneeling during the national anthem to peacefully protest racial injustice is considered uncivil, un-American even, by a large majority of white Americans. Meanwhile, we civilly use taxpayer dollars to kill people in foreign countries we aren’t at war with. We civilly put needles in men’s arms on death row instead of chopping off their heads. We civilly memorialize rapists and murderers with statues. We revere the Civil Rights leaders but never acknowledge that Martin Luther King Jr. was once hated and Nelson Mandela was labeled a terrorist. In their time, as it is in ours, civility was defined by the powerful and used like a club by tyrants.
I didn’t ask that white man in jeans and a T-shirt, but I’m confident he likely believed he was being civil because he called that 30-something-year-old black waiter boy rather than nigger. Civility has always been defined by the oppressed, not the oppressor. In South Carolina, white residents have long perfected the bless-your-heart two-step of praying for your black soul so you can join them in Heaven in the afterlife, while upholding systems that threaten your black body in the here and now.
That isn’t limited to white Southerners. "Civility" means whatever comforts the largest number of white Americans, no matter how much injustice it codifies. That’s why even those who say they are on our side, like the white clergy members in Alabama who told King to stop making so much ruckus, so often tell us to pipe down, to put on a smile, to hide our anger and disgust. It’s why a white friend told me I was turning an ally into an enemy because I insisted there was no good reason for Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby to have killed unarmed Terence Crutcher. It’s why white liberal pundits keep passionately telling us that we will be responsible for white America’s decision to either continue embracing or excusing Trump’s bigotry, unwittingly putting him on a glide path for re-election. Never mind that not even Obama’s world-renowned civility could stop them from supporting Trump.
Civility can be a virtue. Maybe we can use the best version of it during times like these, when kindness seems in short supply. But we need to remember that civility has never ended oppression. It didn’t end race-based chattel slavery. It didn’t destroy Jim Crow. It prevented neither the slaughter of Native Americans nor the march of Japanese Americans into internment camps.
Obama’s civility let us pretend for years that there was nothing deeply wrong with America. Trump snatched off that mask, revealing to ourselves who we’ve long been but long denied being. Going back to pretending will not help.
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