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African-Americans see painful truths in Trump victory

They’re troubled by why so many white voters chose this candidate

On the morning after, a unique wave of despair, anger, fear and depression washed over much of black America.

After learning that Donald Trump had been elected president, some folks cried. Sought refuge in the Bible. Comforted frightened children. Or steeled themselves for life under a president who has retweeted white supremacists, promised to increase stop-and-frisk policing in poor black neighborhoods, falsely connected Mexican immigrants to crime, and launched his political brand by attacking the legitimacy of the first black president’s birth certificate. Plenty of white Hillary Clinton supporters also felt strong emotions after Trump’s victory. But his track record on race seemed to make his triumph cut deeper and feel more personal to many African-Americans.

One sentiment rang loudest in many African-American hearts and minds: The election shows where we really stand. Now the truth is plain to see, many said – the truth about how an uncomfortable percentage of white people view the concerns and lives of their black fellow citizens.

“Transparency is the order of the day. Now we see what was hidden,” said Melvin Steals, a retired teacher and principal who lives in the western Pennsylvania town of Baden. Fifty-seven percent of his county, a mix of rural areas and hollowed-out towns, voted for Trump.

“It’s like the era after Reconstruction all over again, when they wanted to eradicate all of the gains made by blacks after the Civil War,” Steals said. After the war that ended slavery, an activist federal government helped the South’s newly freed African-Americans gain a toehold in society and elected offices before a racist backlash firmly restored white supremacy.

“This is another opportunity to reassert their authority,” said Steals, 70. “At the core there is something nefarious about it. It’s tied into white supremacy, that it’s their way or the highway.”

According to exit polls, Trump won the votes of 67 percent of whites without a college degree, the bedrock of his support. He captured 58 percent of the total white vote, and beat Clinton 49 to 45 percent among white college graduates. Fifty-four percent of white male college graduates voted for Trump.

Trump did make overtures to the black community, promising to bring jobs and better education to struggling cities. Eight percent of black voters chose Trump, better than GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who got 7 percent against President Barack Obama in 2012. Among Latinos, 29 percent backed Trump, more than Romney’s 27 percent.

The 2016 election’s racial dynamics were connected in complicated ways to the Obama era.

In 2007, in the early days of Obama’s first presidential campaign, there was widespread disbelief among African-Americans that many white people would vote for a black man. A majority of black folks essentially overestimated the extent of white racism. “Obama would need 43 percent of the white vote in some states to win, and that’s humanly impossible,” said one South Carolina lawmaker at the time. Yet in 2008, Obama won 43 percent of the white vote nationally – more than previous Democratic candidates John Kerry and Al Gore.

“I was one of those people who thought, this ain’t gonna happen. White people won’t elect a black president,” said Eric Woods, a 47-year-old consultant in Boston.

Now, he believes Trump’s election was a reversion to the mean. “I think white working-class people who have seen their economic and social capital diminish, they sent a message: This guy is saying we can have our heyday again.”

What does it mean that so many whites voted for someone whom so many others viewed as racist? In a widely shared interpretation, CNN commentator Van Jones called the results “a whitelash against a changing country … We don’t want to feel that someone has been elected by throwing away some of us to appeal more deeply to others. This is a deeply painful moment.”

Niyonu Spann, an organizational development specialist who lives in New Jersey, went to bed Tuesday night before Trump’s victory had been confirmed. She awoke feeling tight and numb.

Protestors rally against Donald Trump in Union Square, November 9, 2016 in New York City. Republican candidate Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in the early hours of the morning in a widely unforeseen upset.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 09: Thousands of anti-Trump protesters shut down 5th Avenue in front of Trump Tower as New Yorkers react to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in an upset to become the 45th president.

Thousands of anti-Trump protesters shut down 5th Avenue in front of Trump Tower as New Yorkers react to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in an upset to become the 45th president.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Anti-Trump protesters gather in a park as New Yorkers react to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in an upset to become the 45th president.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

After she read the news, “I just cried,” she said. “Mourning. Tears do not come often for me. It reminded me a lot of when I got the news that one of my aunts had passed.”

“I felt betrayed, by the country,” said Spann, 60.

“Trump was masterful in tapping in on a perception that people of color are causing working-class people’s pain,” she said. “So whether it’s in the package of immigration, or in the package of black lazy folks, or the package of Mexicans, that scapegoat, he’s able to tap in on that.”

Her feelings of sorrow and betrayal also stemmed from how she believes white Trump voters regard racism and oppression. “They’re not taking it seriously,” she said. “It’s not weighed. It’s not real.”

Jean-Max Hogarth, a 49-year-old physician from Maryland, also confronted tears the morning after. His 18-year-old daughter, who had voted for the first time, came into his bedroom at 4:30 a.m., crying hysterically.

“She said, ‘I’m really afraid for my future,’ ” Hogarth said.

“She said she couldn’t believe her fellow Americans voted for a person like that, she doesn’t believe Trump represents the America she believes in. And she said she couldn’t believe that the KKK won – that their interests won.”

Hogarth recalled when Trump claimed he did not know the name of David Duke, the infamous Ku Klux Klansman who backed Trump’s candidacy. Trump later disavowed Duke’s support.

“Trump created his political popularity by using racist techniques of the birther issue, and he never apologized,” he said. “And his unwillingness to denounce the KKK, I think he was attempting to appeal to the worst of the American nature, that racism which is the original sin of America. And he tapped into the very thing that has historically prevented African-Americans and poor whites from really understanding their similar needs and interests. They don’t understand the level of racism this man displayed.”

Some African-Americans believed the nature of their daily interactions with white people would change. Cameron White, a 26-year-old product designer in Austin, Texas, said he had been praying and seeking his father’s advice. “Being in Texas, knowing this state voted for him, I’m wondering if I’m talking to people who are secretly hating me on the inside.”

“It’s hard for me to look a white person in the face right now,” said Drew Schifino, a 35-year-old basketball coach from Pittsburgh. He said he woke up depressed: “I just don’t understand how they could vote for a dude like that.”

But as reality set in and the shock and pain began to ebb, many glimpsed another chapter of the African-American struggle against a bias that never seems to lose its bite.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, for instance, posted a message on Instagram that said, in part: “Minorities and Women in all please know that this isn’t the end, it’s just a very challenging obstacle that we will overcome!! The man above will never put something in our paths that we [can’t] handle no matter how difficult it may feel/be!”

Steals came to a similar place: “It’s taken me 70 years to find the courage that Martin Luther King had,” he said. “Courage is going forward in spite of your fear.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.