The new president of the United States is inheriting a deeply divided America, after an election season that dramatically heightened racial tensions, breathed new life into "alt-right" and white supremacist movements, and saw deadly acts of racial violence both on and off the campaign trail.
In the American South, in a state that has been deeply divided by racial issues for generations, people say it’s not something political leaders alone can fix, and that all citizens will need to work to repair a badly divided country.
“I pray and hope that the country will come together as one,” said Robert Johnson, standing outside his polling station in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday afternoon, having cast his ballot after a long night shift. “I hope we take this as a lesson to realize how far apart we are and come together as one nation, instead of a divided nation. There’s a lot we can do together if we work together, rather than just nag one another.”
A swell in racial violence began to appear in the United States as early as the summer of 2015 and it has continued – and escalated – against the backdrop of the contentious presidential campaign.
The country was rocked by a series of shootings of unarmed black men by police, leading to protests, and in some cases, riots. A peaceful Black Lives Matter protest of fatal police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota held in Dallas in July ended with the ambush murders of five police officers and the injury of seven others, by a black man who professed wanting to kill white people, especially police. Three more officers were killed in Baton Rouge days later in what appeared to be a racially-motivated attack. Last week, in Iowa, a white man killed two police officers in ambush shootings after disputes with authorities over waving a Confederate flag in front of black people at a high school.
Closer to the campaign, incidents were both anecdotal and documented, and were plentiful.
A homeless Latino man was beaten and urinated on in Boston by men who made comments about Donald Trump. A black Muslim woman was assaulted in Washington by a woman who said she was voting for Mr. Trump. There were reports of students in Wisconsin and Indiana chanting “Build that wall!” during games against teams with Hispanic players. A Republican Party headquarters in North Carolina was firebombed with the words “Nazi Republicans leave town or else.” A church in Mississippi was burned and the words “Vote Trump” were spray-painted on the side.
Here in Tennessee, a truck belonging to a transgender veteran was spray-painted with Mr. Trump’s name and set on fire east of Nashville on Saturday. In Memphis the next day, a black man filmed a racist tirade by another driver, who again invoked Mr. Trump.
Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups in the United States, said her organization has seen marked and increasing racial polarization in the country in the past year, which she attributed in large part to statements made by Mr. Trump and the Trump campaign during the long election season.
“This kind of rhetoric has served to, I think, polarize the nation even more deeply along racial lines,” she said. “It’s kind of this pulling apart.”
The result is what has been called “the Trump effect,” where things that would previously have been unacceptable became part of mainstream conversation during the campaign. Hillary Clinton accused her opponent of both inciting violence and “taking hate groups mainstream” and has described the election as being a choice between unity and division in the country.
At a rally and concert in Philadelphia on Monday night, she said she deeply regretted how angry the tone of the campaign had become and she called on people to come together, saying: “We have to bridge the divides in our country.”
In Nashville, Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, said that in the days after the election, people across the country will need to “sit down and break bread” with those who may not look like them or live where they do, and stop seeing people as others, but as fellow Americans.
“The responsibility is bigger than any one person tasked with leading our nation,” he said. “I think the citizens of our nation are tasked with doing that themselves.”
He said one of the key lessons for any elected official is “to listen first,” and that will be vital for the new president going forward.
“There are Americans out there facing big issues … and they feel like no one is listening to them,” he said. “That’s not a Republican or Democrat issue. That’s an American issue.”
Greg Henderson, who lives in a suburb outside Memphis, said he has personally seen an obvious escalation in racism since the election, and believes it is actually a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama.
“For some reason, white males thought they lost eight years with Obama. They think they’ve lost some rights somehow,” said Mr. Henderson. “I don’t know what white America thinks they lost. I haven’t seen anything that they lost. I think people are taking steps forward, and maybe people taking steps forward and catching up to them feels like losing.”
At the Ernest Withers Museum on Beale Street, employee Veleska Lipford said she sees the history of racism in America and the struggle of the civil-rights movement on the walls around her every day, violence that included the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. outside a downtown motel in 1968. She said she was increasingly starting to recognize the same kinds of scenes and sentiments outside museum doors.
“So many people died for it, and it’s so sad because we are repeating some of this today,” she said.
But as Election Day wound down in Memphis on Tuesday, Mauricio Calvo was among those expressing hope the country could repair some of the fractures of the recent months.
While comments about Mexicans and immigrants hit home for Mr. Calvo and others in the Hispanic community, he said the election clearly exposed divides in many areas: between urban and rural, white and non-white, Christian and non-Christian. And, he added, part of the new president’s work will be to reach out to all segments of the community.
He echoed the idea that individual citizens will also need to take action in their own lives to help their country.
“It has for sure divided the country, and no matter what happens, it’s going to take a while for the country to heal,” said Mr. Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, a community and advocacy group. He was born in Mexico, but has been in the United States for 23 years and his children are American-born.
“We as a county will get over this, but it will take time,” he said. “It’s really basic stuff. Be nice to each other. Care. Share. Listen to people. Those are the basic things we can do. We can’t fix the budget, but we can be nice to each other.”
With his red, white and blue “I Voted Today!” sticker worn proudly over his heart, Robert Johnson said he hopes the new president will realize they represent the whole country and will work for the interests of all.
“The bottom line to everything is hate. Can we ever just get over hate?” he asked.
As he pulled away from the polling station, he rolled down his car window and added: “And respect. We need to respect one another. Respect will take care of hate.”Report Typo/Error