For a number of years, particularly since the racial turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, I’ve tried to convince my fellow conservatives that black Americans should be listened to when it comes to the problem of police abuse in their communities.
We should all do our best to never ignore Americans of any background who are hurting.
“Black Americans endure a harshly different reality than what most white Americans experience when it comes to law enforcement,” I wrote two years ago during the Ferguson protests. “For the first time in a long time, black Americans feel like they have a national opportunity to be heard, to affect change and, hopefully, improve their lives.”
In Donald Trump, many voiceless poor white Americans see a chance to be heard too.
J.D. Vance is the author of a new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a personal tale of poverty and social dysfunction in Appalachia.
In an intriguing interview with The American Conservative, writer Rod Dreher asks Vance why the poorest parts of West Virginia are deluged with Trump signs. “The simple answer is that these people — my people — are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.”
“Donald Trump at least tries,” Vance says.
Vance describes an Appalachia where the white working class is jobless, hopeless and addicted to heroin. Their families are broken, instability is the norm, and they are desperate for someone — anyone — to give them answers and even a sliver of attention.
When Trump in his Republican convention speech last week addressed the “forgotten men and women of our country — people who work hard but no longer have a voice,” he said: “I am your voice.” Many poor whites feel as though he’s speaking for them. They also feel like he’s the only leader in a long time that has attempted to do so.
Even as a libertarian conservative who’s repulsed by most of Trump’s agenda, I get that. More Americans — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, black, white or other — should at least try to understand it.
It’s not just hate.
Too many conservatives say anyone who embraces “black lives matter” as a concept is just an anti-white racist, as if black tension with law enforcement were all self-inflicted or even imagined.
Similarly, how many #NeverTrump forces, left or right, have dismissed his support as nothing more than pure racism?
Vance told The American Conservative, “In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from so many of my elite friends some version of, ‘Trump is the racist leader all of these racist white people deserve.”
“These comments almost always come from white progressives who know literally zero culturally working class Americans,” Vance notes.
This is not to say explicit racism isn’t part of the Trump phenomenon, and Vance doesn’t dismiss it either. Far from it. Trump’s most ideological supporters embrace xenophobia and white nationalism, rather like how ugly anti-white or anti-cop rhetoric continues to animate the most extreme elements of Black Lives Matter.
If you don’t know any poor or urban blacks, it’s easy to impose your own prejudices on who they are and what they represent. If you don’t know any poor or working class whites, it’s easy for you to believe the worst of them.
It’s easy to ignore or condemn what you can’t understand or don’t want to understand.
Black Republican Senator Tim Scott said two weeks ago in the wake of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, “To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear, it simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.”
Sen. Scott was talking about his own experience as a black man who has been targeted by police. He was trying to make whites and others understand, saying, “I simply ask you this, recognize that just because you don’t feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist.”
So many of Donald Trump’s poor white supporters are hurting. Trump gives them a platform, however imperfect or misguided. You don’t have to agree with them to sympathize with them. Just because you don’t feel their pain does not mean they do not exist.