Surfacing after surviving the worst president

Spending all of Thursday without once worrying about the president of the United States making yet another horrifyingly stupid announcement or appointment felt like a sort of luxury citizenship after four years of incessant Trump-induced anxiety.

A photo of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building late in the day, with the Rosslyn skyline in the background.

Yet my own experience of President Trump’s reign of error may itself rank as luxurious compared to that of many other Americans. He did not bar my overseas cousins from entering the U.S., insult my religion or ancestry, send troops to my street, or put my child in a cage. The liar-in-chief did regularly denounce the news media as “the enemy of the people,” but my interactions with unhinged Trump supporters never left the online world. And I have to admit that the tax changes Trump pushed through appear to have saved us a decent amount of money.

But it still infuriated me to see my tax dollars spent to inflict those cruelties and more on other people, amplify Trump’s encouragements of racist wingnuts and conspiracy-theory kooks, and pay the salaries of the incompetent, bigoted and corrupt hangers-on who infested Trump’s White House. And then Trump’s willful denial of science helped turn a pandemic that was bound to be dreadful into a disaster whose death toll now exceeds America’s World War II’s combat casualties.

It’s usually a mistake to judge a president’s work too quickly. I now struggle to remember just what made George H.W. Bush seem so much worse than Bill Clinton when I voted for the first time in 1992, while my opinion of Barack Obama has slipped as I’ve realized what a mess he left in Syria. Amidst Trump’s American carnage, people who took their jobs seriously did some good work, even outside headline events like completing the return of human spaceflight to American soil; we may learn about more such quiet efforts.

But well before 2020, Trump’s toxic combination of narcissism, intolerance, ignorance and greed looked set to place him among America’s lesser commanders in chief. Now that Trump has further befouled himself by being the first president in American history to attempt to overturn a legitimate election result up to the point of inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol, I can’t imagine how most historians won’t rate him the lowest of the low, below even those craven sympathizers of slavery and secession James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t perfect (neither led my choices up to Virginia’s primary last March), but they are decent human beings willing to seek out experts and admit contrary evidence. In their administration, the White House should not be a house of lies or a stage for political extremists. And should they lose their next election, they’ll accept that outcome. Even if you once saw promise in Trump to become a disruptive outsider, I hope you can recognize that last bit as an upgrade.

Race with a capital B and a capital W

The Shift key is now getting more work on journalists’ keyboards, thanks to this summer’s sweeping adoption by news organizations of the custom of capitalizing Black and, often, White, when describing a person’s race.

Yeah, it looked weird to me too at first.

When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.

I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.

How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket? 

“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.

As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.

Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often? 

So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?

I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.

As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.

And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.