“You can’t vote for Gore,” my boyfriend said. “He’s practically the same as Bush.” The year was 2000 and, for the first time in both our lives, we were participating in a presidential election.
“But if I vote for Nader,” I said, “and Bush wins, I’ll never forgive myself.” I leaned my head against John’s shoulder. His hoodie smelled like oregano.
“You have to be brave to make change,” he said. “If we want better options, we have to demand them.”
I looked up at John. He’d recently bleached his hair, and the newly yellow spikes stuck out like fresh hay from his forehead. “Maybe,” I said and kissed him on the cheek. Later that night, alone in my dorm, I cast my vote and sealed the envelope. I agreed with John’s critique of the two-party system, but I wanted my vote to be more than symbolic. I wanted to be on the side of the winner.
I now teach freshmen at Xavier University, a historically black college in New Orleans, and though the class I teach is English, we spent a good portion of last semester sidetracked by politics. For the majority of my students, the 2012 presidential election was the first time they got to go to the polls. After each debate, we discussed the candidates. Romney used sentimentality more than Obama. Obama preferred statistics and numbers, logic. We compared Romney’s smile and Obama’s smile. “Why can’t Obama just get angry?” I asked.
Because then he’d be an angry black man, my students told me. Nobody listens to angry black men.
Most of the time when I teach, I’m the only Caucasian in the room. My students and I laugh often at what our different perspectives have taught us.
We talk about early voting and local amendments and voter suppression and mail-in ballots and the Electoral College. “If that’s how it works,” a young woman asked, “then why should I vote? If my state’s going to go red anyway, what’s the point?”
On December 12, 2000, the Supreme Court declared in a 7–2 vote that a recount of Florida’s ballots was unconstitutional, and though he lost the popular vote, George W. Bush was declared the president-elect based on the Electoral College. Afterward, independent organizations including the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago examined Florida’s ballots and concluded that the results would’ve been reversed had a reliable and uniform system of counting been employed.
At 2:00 am on January 20, John and I boarded a bus from Poughkeepsie, New York, to Washington, DC, to attend Bush’s inauguration. In the streets of our nation’s capital, a man dressed in black climbed a streetlight and chanted democracy-themed rhymes. Six young men lifted a parked Mazda and moved it into the street. Women dressed as caribou banged plastic buckets with spoons. Babies cried. John and I held hands and ran. Cold winds whipped frozen rain into our eyes. We’d become part of a pack. Our animal selves stampeded through caution tape, climbed fences, jumped on car bumpers. At one point, I looked to my left and saw my former Sunday-school teacher shoving aside a plastic barricade, howling obscenities at the sky. His face twisted in anger. Cops were everywhere. We were playing capture the flag for our nation’s future, and for a split second, we were having so much fun, we thought we were winning.
In the afternoon, we left the running mob and ducked into a diner for warmth and cheap lunch. We barely had enough change between us for a shared hot drink. In the distance, women in fur coats and men in ten-gallon hats gathered to applaud our new president. Refueled and slightly less frozen, we shuffled and shoved our way onto some metal bleachers. The motorcade inched toward the National Mall. We could see Rudolph Giuliani in a glass box across the street. He looked comfortable behind his safety glass, surrounded by men in suits. When Dubya drove past, we wailed like sirens. The new president stopped waving and rolled up his window. He continued on to the White House.
In my classes at Xavier, my students and I pondered potential outcomes for the 2012 election. “There’s a possibility,” I told my students, “that Romney might win the popular vote and Obama, the electoral vote. If this happened, it would be a repeat of the Bush/Gore election, but in reverse.” In 2000, I was furious about the Electoral College. This past October, it was my fallback hope.
“Two states legalized marijuana,” a student shouted when I got to class the day after the president’s reelection.
“Ganjaaa,” a young woman in pigtails moaned. She put her face in her hands. “They’re going to ruin it.”
The university had hosted a party in the campus ballroom the night before, providing free food while students watched CNN and Fox News—first wings, then Domino’s, then McDonald’s. By the time the president gave his acceptance speech, the students had eaten it all. “Tell me,” I said, “how did you feel as you were watching the results come in?”
Many of my students said they’d felt scared. “If Romney won, I was going to move to Canada,” a student in the front declared. Several of his classmates agreed. “If Romney won,” he added, “this classroom would be empty.”
“I’m so relieved,” someone said. “I get to keep my Pell grant.”
“Who’d you vote for?”
I still hadn’t told them.
Before I taught at Xavier, I taught English at the University of Mississippi. My Ole Miss students weren’t that different from my Xavier students. Some were brilliant. Some had trouble with subject-verb agreement. In one class, we watched An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore scared them. “That guy ran for president?” somebody asked. “I used to think climate change was a scam,” another said. “What can we do?” On the last day of class, I gave each student a cloth bag. “It’s a small gift,” I said. “But now you don’t have to waste plastic.” Many of them promised they’d use it.
“Students at my last school rioted last night,” I confessed to my Xavier students toward the end of our election discussion. “I’m so ashamed.”
“What did you expect?” a young woman said. “It’s Mississippi.”
I observed that sentiment a lot when I was scanning the Internet, trying to learn everything I could about the incident. Undergraduates burned an Obama/Biden sign in a central area of campus known as the Circle. Some shouted racial slurs. Some threw rocks at cars. Two people were arrested. Between 300 and 400 students came out for the event, though it’s unclear how many were rioters and how many were there to witness the commotion. In the comments section below these articles, no one seemed surprised: “What do you expect from the state with the lowest literacy rate and the fattest population?”
When racism occurs in Mississippi, no one’s surprised. “We’re always getting accused,” my Ole Miss students used to complain.
“Why do you think that is?” I’d ask them.
During my four years at Ole Miss, white frat boys threw beers at a black student who tried to attend their party and students dressed in black face on Halloween. Undergrads and alums agitated to reinstate Colonel Reb, a beady-eyed man reminiscent of a plantation owner, as the school mascot. “It’s about keeping up traditions,” they claimed. And fans rose at each and every football game to chant, “The South will rise again!”
Two days after the riot, someone scratched KKK into the hood of black student’s truck and etched Go Home N—- onto the side. The stereo had been stolen and the radio antenna broken off.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The loss of a white majority has helped drive a truly explosive growth of the radical right.” Hate groups are on the rise throughout the country, and with them, the likelihood of racial violence. Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at the Atlantic, recently observed, “The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration.” Instead, Obama’s presidency has “demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black.” The president’s near silence on the topic of race is both the proof and the consequence of this double standard. Even so, commentators have compared Obama’s presidency, and the consequent white backlash, to the end of Reconstruction, an era when hope for racial justice was replaced by the implementation of Jim Crow laws, widespread lynchings, and economic disparity.
“My mom suggested that I apply for law school at Ole Miss,” a Xavier student tells me. We’re talking about the riots, again. “’Listen to yourself,’ I said to her. ‘Why would I go there?’”
“We’ve had forty-three white presidents,” a young man points out, “and everyone gets angry when we finally elect a black one?”
“I only experienced racism once,” another woman says, “when I was a child. I was in line at the grocery store. I didn’t understand what was happening.”
My class erupts with stories. “The kids at my high school made fun of my skin.”
“There are counties in Kentucky no black person will drive through.”
“Six white girls beat up my cousin, and she was the one who got in trouble for defending herself.”
“A cashier at the grocery store accused me of stealing when I was holding my grandmother’s purse.”
“My father got pulled over for having tinted windows. I know the cop who did it—his son has tinted windows.”
“The park in my town locks up their basketball courts only one day a week—the day that my church has always had our picnic.”
“I’m starting to get emotional.”
“It makes me so angry.”
“We can’t even defend ourselves.”
“Nobody’s born hating anyone. Someone taught those kids to be that way.”
2012 marks fifty years since James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. In 1962, white students and anti-integrationists rioted in the Circle, the very same space where an Obama poster flared on election night. In order to navigate the rioters at Ole Miss, Meredith was accompanied by 500 U.S. Marshals, the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Kentucky, the U.S. Army Military Police, the Mississippi Army National Guard, and the members of the U.S. Border Patrol. Two people died in the ensuing violence, and 160 U.S. Marshals were injured. If you take a tour of the campus, the guide will show you the bullet holes in the Lyceum columns, markers of a clash that is supposed to be long over. “This year, we voted for our first black homecoming queen,” your guide will likely say. “Her name is Courtney Pearson. Perhaps, you saw her on TV.”
Words come easy when you’re angry. I had no difficulty yelling at President Bush when I was eighteen and felt my vote had been steamrolled. I didn’t want to be arrested, but I decided that if I was, I had nothing to be ashamed of. I’d be on the correct side of history. I’d be exercising my First Amendment rights. These were easy conclusions for me to come to. I was white. I grew up in the suburbs. At that time, no one I knew had ever been to jail. Prison, to me, was a concept. I wanted to be heroic.
“There’s pleasure,” a colleague of mine observed, “in indignation, but not every one chooses to express it.” As a first-time voter, I’d felt a strange joy when Gore lost and I got to declare that I’d been disenfranchised, ignored. For once, my anger felt important. The anti-Obama rioters, no doubt, felt similarly. Indignation clicks on in moments of perceived injustice. Unchecked, it rolls quickly out of control, gaining momentum at the expense of perspective.
In response to the riots, students, faculty, and alumni at Ole Miss gathered the following evening in the Circle to “redeem the meaning of ‘Mississippi’ and, through that redemption, to claim the promise of America.” They came together to affirm by candlelight that they were better than their reputation. An anonymous person wrote on We Are All Mississippians, a brand new webpage, “The heart of democracy is embodied in the First Amendment. We support the rights of individuals to be fearful and to express their hatred, but we also know that such expressions demand [us] to affirm our values, of love, of peace, of justice. And we must go to the source of the pain, not run from it. It cannot be healed in darkness and silence.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the sport of politics—picking sides, scoring debates, cheering on favorite players. But like any game, democracy requires good sportsmanship. Just because you play, doesn’t mean you’ll win. Being blue in a red state, as I am, or red in a blue country, as many Ole Miss students are, is a discourse to be undertaken with dignity. Our country is only as good as our dialogue.