On Saturday afternoon, when the numbers in Pennsylvania prompted every major media outlet to call the presidential race for Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, I was filled with a mix of joy and relief.
I joined my neighbors in rushing outside to release the primal shouts we’ve all been holding in for the last four years. As if on cue, the bell atop a neighborhood church began to toll, and then, as pockets of jubilation exploded throughout Philadelphia and beyond, those who’d voted for Biden came together to celebrate the victory.
It is a victory punctuated by the historic presence of Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris — the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian ever to be elected Vice President.
But even as cars filled with celebrants snaked along Philadelphia’s Germantown Avenue, their horns blaring insistently and their drivers beaming with joy, my happiness was tempered with caution. Even as fellow Democrats danced in my city’s streets and beyond, I couldn’t fully give in to the moment. That’s because I know that while Biden defeated Trump by more than 4 million votes, there are 70 million Americans who voted for Trump’s brand of racially divisive politics.
Those Americans will still be here tomorrow, and tomorrow, I will still be Black.
That means the same 70 million Americans who voted for Trump in spite of — and too often because of — his racist rhetoric, will still be smiling in the workplace, patrolling Black communities and occupying positions of power. In the wake of Biden’s victory, I am keenly aware of their presence, just as they are cognizant of mine.
As a Black man from the city whose votes gave Pennsylvania and the presidency to Joe Biden, I know that many of Trump’s supporters are angry with me and my community. And while I’m exceedingly proud to be part of a group that skillfully used the electoral system to stand up against Trump’s racial division, I am also painfully aware of America’s history. It is a history in which America punishes Black people for winning, even when we play within the rules. It is a history in which America resorts to violence when legal oppression doesn’t work.
So, pardon me for being so guarded. Forgive me for not celebrating with abandon. Excuse me for expecting backlash. My caution is informed by history — a history that incessantly repeats.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood known as Greenwood was a place where African Americans played by the rules, and in doing so, amassed such wealth that Greenwood was known as Black Wall Street. In 1921, when a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, Greenwood was burned to the ground by neighboring whites who by all accounts were appalled by Greenwood’s success.
I am aware of Wilmington, North Carolina, where in 1898, a duly elected Black city government was subjected to an armed coup by whites who refused to be governed by African Americans.
I am aware that even now, the rules are applied differently to Black people, as evidenced by the continuing and disproportionate police killings of unarmed African Americans in our country.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cannot heal such gaping racial wounds on their own. Nor should they have to do so. As former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams told me in an interview in the run-up to the presidential election, we are not electing a savior. We have to save ourselves, and those who plan to engage in that daunting mission must look like those who are now dancing in the streets.
Our saviors will have to be Black and white, young and old, gay and straight. They will have to be all of us. And in the same way we’ve come together to dance and cheer the apparent end of Trump’s toxic presidency, we will have to unite to guard against the inevitable backlash.
If we truly want to wipe away the stain of Donald Trump’s racially divisive presidency, Black Americans and our white allies will have to do more than dance together. We will have to work together. That means helping each other up instead of holding each other down, giving each other jobs instead of giving each other grief. It means working together not because we want to, but because we have to.
Seventy million people voted for Donald Trump and the racism he’s come to represent. They won’t go away because they lost an election.
We must not go away because we won.