I grew up in Allen County, Ohio. I lived in the county seat of Lima and attended school in the village of Elida. The show Glee takes place in my hometown, and I have never watched a single episode of Glee, but I often use this fact to help orient people to where I grew up. I rarely visit my hometown outside of traveling there to spend time with my family during major holidays.
It feels honest and yet really vulnerable to admit this publicly. Facebook has become a window into the souls of so many people I grew up with, so much so that I often find myself unfriending them. The truth is that I have become a remarkably different person—and the place where I grew up feels like it has become a remarkably different place.
Today it seems as if the only time I bring up my hometown is when I’m having a conversation with someone about Donald Trump and we’re both shockingly/unshockingly lamenting his latest evil shenanigans. We might shake our heads thinking of his delusional supporters who are somehow able to look past it all.
These conversations happen almost daily. It’s in these conversations that I “rep” my hometown—mostly to prove that because I’m from a town of overwhelmingly white Trump supporters, I understand their delusions better than most.
I’m black and my hometown overwhelmingly voted for Trump. I say this with a sense of perverted pride and embarrassment. It’s an odd distinguishing quality for a black person living in Washington, D.C. I didn’t join a frat or attend an HBCU, and I’m not in Jack and Jill. But it’s not these things that distinguish me most from many of my black friends; it’s that I grew up in a county that is 80 percent white and where 66 percent of the electorate voted for Trump. As a result, I’m something of an autodidactic ethnographer of white Trump supporters. I’ve learned that there are distinct characteristics of this subset.
I spent half of my life with the “I don’t see color but you’re not like those other black people, but please stay away from our daughters and sisters” white people.
The “I don’t see the connection between peacefully protesting by taking a knee and the military’s role in supporting and defending the protesters’ constitutional right of freedom of speech” white people. The “I love Jesus but hate gays” white people. The “I shop at Walmart and am not aware of its role in driving small mom-and-pop stores out of business” white people. The “If he hadn’t talked back to the officer he’d still be living” white people.
The “I was able to look past racism, sexism and xenophobia to support Trump” white people.
To be certain, there were also many other white people I grew up with and befriended who didn’t fit those shameful archetypes. Many still live in my hometown, but many have also left to explore other parts of the state and country. Some have settled in places like Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; Chicago; and New York. They left to pursue careers as chefs, doctors, graphic designers, journalists and in sales at tech startups.
Some of these white people have purposefully distanced themselves from many of the white people in my hometown, as if it to say, “They look like me and we’re from the same town, but they couldn’t be further away from me.” These white people often are the ones on my Facebook timeline who chime in to beat back on the current zeitgeist of Trump supporters in my hometown.
Whatever the topic—the Muslim ban; gays in the military; Charlottesville, Va.; black athletes kneeling during the national anthem; Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals; North Korea; Puerto Rico; tax reform—these white people often parachute in on racially inflammatory Facebook posts to inject words of reason that debunk the collective groupthink. They call out alternative facts that Trump’s supporters propagate. I appreciate their willingness to jump into the fray because fighting white supremacy is exhausting.
Also, in college, I met and befriended the “private school, upper-class, send their kids to a liberal arts college” white people. After graduation, I lived and worked in New Jersey, where I met and befriended the “I’m down and I love black culture” white people. I then lived in Pittsburgh for a fellowship program and graduate school at Carnegie Mellon; there I met the “progressive bleeding-heart, how can I be a better ally” white people.
I’m also incredibly proud of and inspired by the black people who have either lived in my hometown or are still living there. Not least my parents, who still live in the house that I was born in 35 years ago.
They moved from Alabama in the ’70s in hopes of better financial opportunities for black people. Both retired educators in the Lima Public School system, they poured out their hearts to ensure that their four children were getting a quality education. My family, like so many other black families in Lima, is a constant source of pride for me.
Although my hometown is listed as one of the worst places to live for black people, there’s still a vibrant black establishment in Lima that exists and has survived despite racial and systemic oppression. These families have acted as the glue that has kept Lima from completely falling apart at its seams.
These families have done everything from intervening in and stabilizing racial tensions at county schools to running and growing the local Head Start program and investing time and resources to develop the next generation of student-athletes. They were and continue to be a part of the old guard—and have the scars to show for it.
There has been much written on how Trump won the election. Many political pundits have placed blame at the feet of liberal elites for miscalculating the need to connect with white working-class voters in small towns like the one I grew up in. They argue that if Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had spent more time in small rural towns across the country, the outcome could have been different.
Given my lived experiences and what I know about some of the people I grew up with who support Trump, it wouldn’t have made a difference. When Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” I believed him. This was not hyperbole for me. By this time I had seen people from my hometown post many Facebook comments defending police officers whenever they killed another unarmed black man, regardless of the circumstances.
Many white kids whom I met on the playground as kids have now found themselves on the losing end of this new economy as adults. Many of the Trump supporters I know have blamed the same economic institutions that were designed with them in mind.
When jobs were shipped overseas and layoffs were in full swing at the factory, they supported anti-union Republicans. Some have let their closeted racism and bigotry about black people, same-sex marriages, immigrants and women’s reproductive rights lead them down a dark economic hole where the only hope is religion, a border wall, and manufacturing jobs coming back from places like Mexico and China. Their bewilderment stems from the belief that because of their whiteness, they shouldn’t be in such a precarious state. But even white supremacy isn’t enough to reverse the economic fate of working-class whites in small-town USA.
Many white people who voted for Trump are finding themselves in an economic position similar to where black people found themselves during the beginning of the Rust Belt era. Manufacturing jobs in Allen County have always been somewhat like winning the lottery for black people. It was big news when you heard that so-and-so “got in” at the Ford plant. It also came as no shock when so-and-so was let go during the first round of layoffs at the plant. White factory workers were always prioritized, and the black factory worker’s economic reality has always been a tenuous one back home.
This reality forced black folks to develop the necessary muscle for economic survival. This meant that although our parents and relatives may have had a factory job, we were encouraged to explore other career pathways, many that require at least a college degree. Being twice as good was hammered into our brains, and we were reminded of this when our parents reviewed our report cards.
“Make America great again” means going back to a time where white people who have no special skills, little education and lack of motivation to better themselves can share the same middle-class lifestyle as highly skilled people of color with a college education and advanced degrees. In their minds, this scenario is more achievable than doing what is necessary to compete in a new economy.
I’m grateful that my hometown has given me a better sense of awareness. I’m aware that some people back home will be upset and perhaps even angered by me sharing my truth, but I take comfort in knowing that we were never really friends after all.