In 1984 I lived in San Jose, California. I remember my mother giving my siblings and me new “Rainbow Coalition” t-shirts and dragging us to several Jesse Jackson campaign events. My dad came along, and while he was clearly intrigued by the idea of a Jackson Presidency, he thought that politics was all “shaking hands and kissing babies.” The problem with that, he explained is that there is no way that any candidate could remember which hands he shook or babies he kissed. I didn’t understand why that was important at the time.
We didn’t get our first Black President in 1984. In 2008, I volunteered on Barack Obama’s campaign. I donated. I prayed. I talked people’s ears off about why he could be “the one.” He was a Senator, a former law school professor and a best selling author who happened to smoke Newports, play ball and brush waves into his hair. He was simultaneously stately, and approachable. After he was elected, we saw him controversially engage in customary bows before foreign heads of state, but also bow down so a little Black boy was able to feel that the President’s hair felt just like his. We saw him give stirring speeches but also shake hands with the janitors at the White House.
Obama has become a symbol for Black people–a reminder that we don’t need to view ourselves through the eyes of anyone else. We know how American society sees us. Rhode Island is one of the most segregated states in the country, and the schools are even more segregated than the communities at large. In Providence, white children make up 15 percent of the school aged population, but only nine percent of the public school population. It seems that white parents are both fleeing the city and the schools (white children made up 44 percent of Providence’s children and 25 percent of the public school population in 1998). It seems like we are heading back to the days of the redlining of the 1930’s.
This is why Donald Trump’s racially charged rhetoric is upsetting, but not surprising to most Black people–we’ve been here before. When I moved back to Providence from North Carolina in 2012, we rented an apartment in Federal Hill. My wife and I both lived in West Broadway when we met, but I still remembered as a kid in South Providence being warned to never walk through Federal Hill alone because “they didn’t like us.” If I missed my bus to Nathaniel Greene Middle School, we walked to downtown and all the way up Chalkstone Avenue to get to school heeding that warning. This is why I am always troubled when I hear the descendants of families long gone off the hill use the language of bringing it “back.” This is why I am a little afraid of State Senate candidate Nick Autiello’s campaign announcement on Facebook, with its nostalgic references to times that aren’t nostalgic to people like me.
This is why I am a little afraid of Nick Autiello’s long history of opposing and attacking Obama. Rudy Giuliani, the Republican Mayor of New York City and 2008 Presidential candidate, has become a symbol of a different kind for Black people. Giuliani pioneered brutal police tactics like stop and frisk and has recently served as a prominent Trump surrogate who led the design of Trump’s Muslim ban. This is why it makes me a little afraid that Autiello began his career in Florida Republican politics campaigning for Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 Florida Republican primary:
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This is why it makes me a little afraid that he supported John McCain over Obama:
This is why it makes me a little afraid that he loved Sarah Palin:
This is why it makes me a little afraid that he attacked Obama during that first campaign:
This is why it makes me a little afraid that he attacked Obama when he won:
This is why it makes me a little afraid that he attacked Obama’s style of speech:
This is why it makes me a little afraid that when he was working for Charlie Crist, he made it all about his hatred of Obama:
This is why it makes me a little afraid that he attacked the Black Democrat Crist was running against.
This is why it makes me a little afraid that he didn’t like Black voices on TV:
And this is why it makes me more than a little afraid that just a few years ago he posted this on Facebook:
Suddenly I don’t want to talk about if politicians remember whose hands they shake on the campaign. I just wonder if they feel the need to wash their hands after they shake mine.