It’s been just under a year since my mother voted for Donald Trump in the national election, and I am home visiting her in Michigan. Her vote is still a sore spot between us. Still, I’m happy to be here, and slip into the rhythm of my mother’s suburban lifestyle. So far we’ve had fajitas and bowl-sized margaritas at Chili’s, caught up on the news of my siblings, and bought a month’s worth of household supplies at Sam’s Club. We’ve taken a walk around the faux-downtown of the new outdoor mall, and had a serious discussion about my father’s health. Today, she surprised me with an invitation to go see Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Detroit, a controversial dramatization of the deadly Algiers Motel incident during the rebellion of 1967. My mother had never expressed much interest in the history of Detroit, a city she’s lived near for over thirty years. But she had an idea that the film was important.
After sitting through two and a half hours of harrowing violence, we drive home in a thunderstorm. Our nerves are raw from watching sneering white cops terrorize a group of young people, mostly black men; and from our view of the blood pooling in rooms throughout the Algiers, runoff from dead bodies. We sit in silence, the radio playing in the background almost drowned out by rain hitting the roof. The film replays in my mind: upbeat Motown music, sparkling gowns, and smooth choreography juxtaposed with taut scenes of crowded police precincts, burning streets, and the court room where the cops were found not guilty of murder. It is a reminder, really, of how little things have changed.
The tension across the country these days feels to me eerily similar to that of the long hot summer of 1967, when 164 US cities were in open rebellion—or similar, at least, to my sense of that history. The white supremacist rally and murder of a young woman in Charlottesville, VA, happened just three days before my trip home; the connections didn’t escape my mother.
That movie was really upsetting, my mom says as she navigates the back streets. Those cops were real assholes, treating those young men like that.
Trump’s voice interrupts us from the radio, invading the car: I think there is blame on both sides. I feel instant revulsion, but reach over and turn up the volume. You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.
My mother listens with a scowl. I wish I hadn’t voted for him, she says. He just keeps fucking things up. Her nervous energy fills the car as her eyes dart between brake lights and pothole puddles. She taps on the steering wheel, one of her anxious habits. The lines in her brow are more pronounced than usual. Looking at her, I feel a hot, self-righteous flash of anger: her reflections are welcome—but they are also late.
Jesus, this rain is something, she says. She moves her face closer to the windshield and squints, her hands gripping the wheel.
A few days after Trump’s upset, my father almost died. He was rushed to the ER with aphasia and a high fever: a consequence of his progressive-relapsing multiple sclerosis. With that, our personal post-election battles were eclipsed by the demands of problem-solving and our need for emotional support.
My childhood bedroom—with the Tori Amos posters on the walls and anarchy symbols painted on the floor in my favorite black nail polish—is still mostly intact. Other things around the house have changed. The backyard swing set has been torn down; the blue shag carpet was replaced with docile beige microfiber; the small upright piano became the TV stand at the foot of my father’s hospital bed. The house now smells faintly of urine; there is not always someone home to let the dog out, and my mom foregoes strong detergent on my father’s soiled linens to avoid irritating his skin.
We moved into this house when I was seven. My mom worked the day shift, and my sister and I were in charge of watching our brothers after school. She would call us multiple times a day: What are you doing? Are the doors locked? Is the meat defrosting on the counter? Where’s Matt? Well, you better find him!
My dad worked an hour away as an accountant, not coming home until late. The evenings consisted of my mother shuttling us around to dance lessons and basketball practice. Dinner was fast food or a box-prepared meal washed down with off-brand pop. My mother often ended the night on the couch, dozing to the television, reading a trashy novel, or drinking wine in the dark.
She sits next to me now and eyes my bowl of dry cereal with a grimace. Is that gonna be enough to eat? I nod. She picks out a Cheerio and pops it in her mouth. Nice to have you home, Rachie. She stares off into space, chewing slowly. Her cheeks are peeling slightly and red patches line the side of her face. Her eczema acts up during periods of extreme stress or fatigue; she stopped trying to cover it up with makeup years ago.
Thanks, Ma. Glad I can be here.
Everything OK with you?
I pause, considering my response. I am working on my generosity with her, and my own critical view of myself. I want to make a leap forward, encouraged by our conversation in the car.
Not great, actually, I reply. I wish Dad wasn’t dying and Trump wasn’t elected president.
She sucks her teeth and looks at me out of the corner of her eye. Give it a rest, OK? Everyone’s got problems, not just you.
I shrug and go back to eating my Cheerios.
Southeast Michigan, where I grew up, is one of the most segregated regions in the country. Detroit lies at its heart, a city built for two million. Despite sporadic gentrification efforts over the past decades, it is still two-thirds empty: vacant lots, abandoned buildings, decaying streets. There is beauty in pockets, communities holding strong amid the blight, but wealth is mostly located outside the city’s borders.
Macomb County touches Detroit on the infamous 8 Mile Road. On a half-mile stretch on the northwest side, a six-foot-tall slab of concrete still stands, leftover from a development project in the 1940s that separated an existing black neighborhood from the white one they sought to build. Some describe it as Southeast Michigan’s own Berlin Wall. I grew up on the other side of the region, in Clinton Township, one of about thirty municipalities within Macomb’s borders. A town made up of subdivisions, strip malls, and gas stations, it is interchangeable with thousands of suburbs across America.
It has changed some in the years since I lived there. Today, it’s a strange mix of hyper-development and decline in use: most of the farmland and green space have been replaced with housing developments and box stores, while the majority of the storefronts surrounding my parents’ neighborhood lie empty. The racial make-up has shifted as well. Before I left for college, the town was almost exclusively white—there was one black family at my high school and another at my church. As of 2015, it was fifteen percent African-American, two percent Latino, and two percent Asian or Pacific Islander.
A mix of middle- and working-class suburbs, Macomb oscillates between red and blue on the electoral map. As the third largest county in Michigan—after Wayne County, home of Detroit, and Oakland County, its wealthy, mostly white neighbor—the voters here decided the state election for Trump: 53.6 percent of the ballots chose him to be president. Back in March, Bernie Sanders had won the state’s Democratic primary by a margin of 18,427 votes. The people here wanted something different; it didn’t seem to matter to them what that looked like.
My mother grew up in the working-class town of Jackson, Michigan, ninety-six miles from Clinton Township, and home of the state’s first prison. Since it closed in 1934, it has become a tourist attraction. The current prison—split up into different sites throughout town—is still the third-largest employer in the city, hiring more than twice as many people as the local school system.
A plaque in a Jackson plaza commemorates the spot as the birthplace of the Republican Party, formed on July 6, 1854, during a convention committed to the cause of anti-slavery. Although the party has moved far from its origins, the town has remained loyal. Though Michigan has been blue since the early ’90s, Jackson County continued to vote Republican in all but one of the last nine elections: Obama’s first, in 2008.
My mother, though, grew up in a Democratic household of second-generation Polish immigrants with blue-collar jobs: my grandfather worked in the gear and forge manufacturing division of the Clark Equipment Company, my grandmother as a bus driver for Jackson Public Schools. To them, American political parties were simple: Republicans were for the rich, and Democrats were for everyone else. The household was consumed with the act of staying alive—looking for work, arguing about money, going to mass, waiting in the bread line. It was clear which team they were on.
By the time my mom was in ninth grade, things turned around. Her dad was able to save up the money for their family of six to move into a two-bedroom home. He bought it with cash, my mother would say with pride. Within two years of buying the house, though, my grandfather was dead: alcohol, stress, and physical labor took their toll. My mother arrived home one day, in her junior year of high school, to an ambulance in the driveway. Grandpa had suffered a heart attack after shoveling snow, and collapsed in the family kitchen.
With her dad gone, my mother became the first person in her family to earn a college degree, Social Security paying her full tuition at Michigan State University. That’s where she met my father. They lived in Baltimore for a short time before settling in the Detroit suburbs. For years, her family harassed her about leaving them behind and starting a new life. My mother would defend herself and her choices, but she always felt guilty. She apologized to her mother on her deathbed. My mom was crying, but Grandma didn’t even blink.
Detroit was a part of my fabric since early childhood. In preschool, I would play A Motown Christmas on repeat every day when I got home, regardless of the season. During grade school, my parents were among the few in our town who took their kids to the city for performances, museums, and Tigers games. You went downtown? my friends would ask, their eyes wide. My mom says we can’t go there. According to the local news, the city was a minefield of carjackings, drug violence, and arson.
In the ’90s, it was concerts at St. Andrew’s Hall and nights of pool, punk, and drinking at the Magic Stick—a bar on Woodward Avenue that didn’t card. This was also the first full decade of Detroit techno music. My friends and I would sneak out of our bedrooms and go to raves at the old firehouse, under the Ambassador Bridge, and in the abandoned Packard Plant on the east side. We danced all night, emerging hours later in the bright sun of morning with dirty jeans, sweaty bodies, and exhausted grins. We wiped the black mucus from our noses, a consequence of the dirt, asbestos, and rot inside the decaying structures, the histories of which we were oblivious to. We drove back to the suburbs before our parents got up for work.
In college I learned about the history of Detroit: the housing discrimination and block clubs that kept neighborhoods segregated during the 1900s. The highway construction that destroyed Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, thriving black neighborhoods and cultural centers, during the 1950s. The same highways that, combined with the force of automation, eliminated black jobs and facilitated white flight more than a decade before the rebellion of 1967. The heightened police violence in the 1970s, exemplified by the creation of the Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (S.T.R.E.S.S.) unit, which terrorized black neighborhoods in the name of the “war on crime.” The rise of gang violence, the crack epidemic, and widespread arson that peaked in the 1980s. We looked at the community building, environmental justice, and revolutionary movements that rose up in response to these and other man-made calamities in the city: the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Panthers, Detroit Summer, and many others.
Alienated by the suburbs and motivated by a new sense of wonder and accountability, I moved to Detroit after graduation. I remember the thrill I felt on that first day, driving south on I-75, my car filled with boxes, as the city skyline came into focus: the tall silos of the Renaissance Center; Comerica Tower’s neo-gothic spires, cold granite standing resolutely in its place near the river; the art-deco arches of the Guardian Building, tan brick and green tiles against the cloudy November sky.
My time residing in the city was both challenging and vibrant. The reality of living in a place abandoned by capitalism, forced to find its own way, was instructive. The artist and activist communities were dynamic, inspiring, and close-knit. We looked for new ways of engaging with a place that was so segregated and economically disenfranchised. Years of racial tension between the city and the suburbs failed to advance the regionalism that many post-industrial cities employed as their way back to economic viability. Southeast Michigan had no such story, and the city itself bore the brunt of the consequences.
Three years after my move downtown, I once again packed up my belongings and got in the car. I drove south on Woodward Avenue, passed the boarded-up Ford Motor Plant—site of the original Model T assembly line—just south of McNichols. I took the Davison to the Lodge Freeway back to I-75 South, and, this time, kept going.
I passed the Michigan Central Train Station, an eighteen-story ruin towering over Corktown, where tens of thousands of black Southerners once passed through each day, the final stop on their journey north. Once a symbol of hope, the station was now a hollow ghost: wind whipped through its 1,050 broken windows, the building’s perimeter surrounded by a ragged chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire. It disappeared quickly as I maneuvered the twists and turns of on-ramps and overpasses, wiping away tears of doubt and snaking my way through Mexican Town on my way to Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and eventually: New York.
Politics were not given robust attention in my house. Like many families in Clinton Township, my parents were de facto Republicans. They weren’t tied to the party ideologically, but the Democrats represented something to them that they were not. My parents weren’t anti-intellectual—my dad went to college on a full-ride merit scholarship and my mother earned her master’s degree at age fifty-nine—but they did not identify with the liberal establishment. And despite my mother’s childhood, her disabled husband, and me—her queer daughter—she did not see herself as part of any marginalized group, the people the Democrats claimed to be fighting for.
As I came into my own politically, I was perplexed by my mother’s electoral choices. She’s not a bigot who wants to ban Muslims; she’s a pragmatic Catholic who believes people should worship however they choose. She doesn’t want to dismantle gay rights and send us to conversion therapy; she’s a PFLAG mom who has always welcomed my partners to family gatherings. She doesn’t want to cast out immigrants or block refugees; she thinks all people deserve a safe place to raise their children.
So what motivated her to vote for Trump? In a phone conversation a few months after the presidential election, my mom described Michigan during the 1980s, when the state unemployment rate was at 16.8 percent. When you guys were little, it was rough, she said. So many people lost their jobs all at once. I mean. God. It was awful.
Back then, nearly everyone was connected to the auto industry. When GM, Ford, and Chrysler all gutted their workforce, it threw the city into a crisis. People wanted someone to blame. Fingers pointed everywhere: to corporations, politicians, and Japanese manufacturers. They were a popular scapegoat at the time; claims of Japanese workers taking American jobs were tinged with racist overtones leftover from WWII.
My grandfather’s once-thriving equipment plant and the parts supplier where my father worked both closed. My dad was laid off repeatedly. He worked as a gas station attendant, a grocery store clerk, and a door-to-door vacuum salesman to make up for lost and lowered paychecks.
I remembered all this while my mother and I talked. There were years when she got our holiday meal from the church. She thanked the woman in the office, graciously accepting what she and my dad were unable to provide. Once we reached the car she wiped away tears of embarrassment, remaining silent long after we arrived home.
Through all of it, my mother was angry. She had left her family to find her own way, trying to achieve economic stability. She did everything right: earned a college degree; married up; got a white-collar job; mortgaged a house in the suburbs; put her kids in piano and dance lessons. She followed all the rules, but was still precariously perched on the edge.
I know my mother does not think of herself as a political person: it all seems to go on around her, whether she participates or not. When she looks out at the world, my mother sees an increasingly smaller place for herself. During the 2016 presidential campaign, though, she saw an opportunity for things to be different. On the phone, my mother explained that Trump was going to put America back to work. He is a businessman, Rachel. He says he will create jobs. People deserve a chance to make their lives better. She paused a minute. I know he’s an ass, but there’s good in everyone, ya know?
I picture my mother filling out her ballot, and what must have been going through her mind. Because my disabled father is unable to work, she is the sole breadwinner. Her family is less than one hundred miles to the west, but they do not come to visit or help. Most of her children have moved away: up and out, like she’s always planned. My mother stays behind, struggling to manage the household chores, my father’s caretaking, and the family’s economic survival. Her vote, then, was an expression of anger and longing, but also her hope that someone would finally be coming back, now, for her.
My mother’s story fits tidily into the national conversation about the white working class since the election: motivated by economic instability, we’re told, they gravitated to a candidate who promised to restore their sense of power and safety. It’s a comfortable explanation, one that allows white liberals and leftists to point away from themselves and say the problem is over there. It also gives us something clear to work on: if Democrats can get in line with the working class and provide jobs, we tell ourselves, then we can prevent something like the 2016 election from happening again.
But this analysis is incomplete. We can’t disregard the fear and resentment that white working-class voters feel toward the bogeymen Trump names: people of color, immigrants, Muslims. This scapegoating plays on deep divisions, privileging emotion over critical thinking and even common sense, and leading people to choose their race over their class.
My mom is an empathetic person, but like all of us, she is a product of a racist culture. It is by design that white people see themselves as the rightful heirs of power in America; there is resentment and a sense of outrage when this is not achieved. Trump plays up this sense of the white working class being under attack, assuring people that he will restore the power that they didn’t actually have in the first place. It doesn’t matter that he has neither the intention nor the ability to do this. The fantasy endures—with disastrous consequences.
I also think about how we approach this analysis and conversations on the left. The terms that we use to describe the constructed phenomenon of whiteness—specifically, privilege and power—are, while accurate, alienating to people who have never been the elite. They have never felt a true sense of security; how can I be privileged when I am so uncomfortable? There is a disconnect here that isn’t fully examined, leading to feelings of discomfort and rejection of the claims.
Our words shields us white leftists as well. Driven by the work of people of color, a nuanced, highly developed language has been created to describe the structures and functions of white supremacy. We use it to talk with and about our fellow white people and their political choices, narratives, and behaviors. It is important work, but can also be a way of avoiding our own internal assessments of how we fit into the structures of racism. The sophistication we gain through training and education in the habits of political speech and social analysis, though, don’t necessarily track directly with the eradication of internalized white supremacy. That is our own fantasy, and it slows down the much-needed work of dismantling the systems that have brought us to where we are today.
This past fall, I returned to Michigan to marry my partner in downtown Detroit. Our community came from all over the country to celebrate with us—many in the city for the first time. My mother was there, of course, as was my father. My brother wheeled him next to me on my walk to the altar, all three of us tearing up, but joyful. I saw the same emotions reflected in my mother’s eyes as we slowly made our way to the front. It was my father’s first time leaving the house for something other than a doctor’s visit or an ambulance ride in more than eight years.
We found out right before the wedding that I was pregnant. It caught me off guard, but also explained why I had been feeling so off. During the ceremony, I was too sick to stand. But the rest of the unseasonably warm fall evening was full of laughter and dancing, the lights of the Ambassador Bridge glittering in my peripheral vision. At one point, I looked over and saw my mother talking to my friend Trevoy, his hand on her arm. He leaned in close and they both laughed. I watched them embrace—him in a tailored shirt, skinny tie, and fresh high-low fade; her in a knee-length black wrap dress, sparkling rhinestone belt, and low, square heels—before she went back to visiting with her sister and he rejoined us on the dance floor.
At the end of the night, I lay awake in my suite high up on the seventieth floor of the Renaissance Center. The city stretched out far below, its five main roads—Woodward, Michigan, Gratiot, Grand River, and Jefferson—shooting out from their convergence point on the Detroit River, a “spokes of the wheel” layout fitting for the once-thriving Motor City. I knew this place so well I could name all the landmarks, even in the dark. My body was begging for sleep but my mind was buzzing; trying to wind down, I counted those places like sheep.
Like my mother, I was the only one in my family to move far from my birthplace, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. I spent the last ten years in one of the most diverse places in the country, a city rich with opportunity, and built a community around me that mirrored that abundance. I earned a fellowship for a subsidized master’s degree and, within five years of working as a public school teacher, made a higher salary than either of my parents ever did.
Now it seemed like our lives were starting to converge again. Shortly after the wedding, my partner and I would decide that we wanted to raise our child in the part of the world that we both came from. Almost against my wishes, I was feeling the pull of the Midwest more strongly than I had in years. And my mother’s worries about jobs and protecting her family were quickly becoming more real to me.
Still wide awake, I put a hand on my belly and felt a pang of guilt I recognized from a decade earlier, when I drove away to Brooklyn. Back then, at twenty-five, I was impatient for my life to take shape. I was young, mobile, childless, and beholden to no one. I had a way out of economic instability, and like my mother before me, I took it.