DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The author Clifford Thompson has spent a lot of time thinking about identity.
CLIFFORD THOMPSON: As a young man, I kind of struggled with how to - how do you as a black person kind of fit yourself into American society? For most of us, America is the only home we've ever known. On the other hand, America has such a history of oppression of people of color. So where do you fit yourself into that picture?
GREENE: He often thinks about his place in America, and he says, for him, the 2016 election brought on a new period of reflection. He did not vote for President Trump. Actually, he rarely meets people who did. Maybe you can relate to Thompson; maybe not. But no doubt, this is a divisive time in our country, a time when many people with views for or against this president have trouble understanding the other side.
THOMPSON: There are a lot of stories of liberals, you know, going to a Thanksgiving dinner, and their uncle is there, who's a Trump supporter. And, you know, they either have an argument or they avoid the subject of politics altogether. As a black person, you know, my circle tends not to include a lot of conservative Republicans. So it's not that I think Trump supporters are space aliens or anything like that. It's just that, in the normal course of things, I tend not to have lengthy conversations with them. So I decided that maybe it was time to. Maybe it was time to do that.
GREENE: And that is exactly what he did. To understand his country and himself, he sought out people who support President Trump. Now, to be clear, he wasn't trying for a representative sample of Trump voters. He only wrote about several of them, all of them white men. He also wasn't trying to draw any sweeping conclusion about our country. This was a very personal journey that he writes about in his new book, "What It Is."
THOMPSON: So when Donald Trump was elected, it came out that the majority of white voters in the country supported him. So if you are a black person who has always founded your beliefs on the notion that you should not be prejudiced, that you should not judge people according to skin color, but the majority of whites in the country have supported a man who received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan - where does that leave you? And so for the first time in my life, I felt the foundational personal beliefs of mine to be challenged in a major way. And so it became a matter of figuring out how to go forward with this challenge.
GREENE: And you decided as part of going forward that you wanted to meet and listen to some voters who supported Donald Trump. How did you reach that decision?
THOMPSON: I wanted to talk to Trump supporters just to try to get a sense of what exactly some of - I mean, I certainly can't talk to all Trump supporters, and there's some I don't want to talk to, but I wanted to get a sense of what some of them were thinking, so that I could then come to some sort of rational conclusion about why so many people supported this man.
GREENE: And some of your conversations that you write about in the book, I mean, they were captivating. And we should say, I think you gave them different names to protect their identities, right?
THOMPSON: Yes. Yes I did.
GREENE: So there was a guy you called Bob who you spent some time with. Tell me a little bit about him so our listeners know.
THOMPSON: Sure. Bob is a Californian. He's white. He's in his 70s. He's a retired California highway patrolman. And so he welcomed me into his home. We started talking about, you know, his upbringing, his career. And I asked him questions about race and, almost out of the blue at one point, he remembered an experience he had in the early 1970s when he was a patrolman. And he said, you know, this isn't nice, do you want to hear it? And I said, yes, I do. So he proceeded to tell me what it was.
GREENE: So Bob is sitting there and recounts the time that he used the n-word. And he tells you about this. I mean, how did you react to that?
THOMPSON: I admired him for sharing that story with me because he certainly didn't have to, and he knew that it would not make him look good. So he understands that this was not a good thing to have done. And he very much identifies himself as somebody who is not racist, who does not make judgments on the basis of race. At the same time, as became clear in our conversation, as became clear to me, he would say things that indicated to me, if not to him, sort of negative attitudes toward black people. So, you know, on the one hand, he identifies as somebody who is not racist. On the other hand, I think he has beliefs that I don't even think that he's aware of having, which are negative about people of color.
GREENE: I guess it's important to point out - I mean, obviously these were just a couple conversations, and I - my colleagues and I have interviewed a lot of people who supported President Trump, who might have had similarities to these guys or might not. I want to focus more on you, and what did you get out of this and these conversations?
THOMPSON: One notion I came away with is that - and this sort of transcends the time that we're in and transcends Trump's election and everything - is that I think most people are decent; a lot of people are not. But even at a level below that, people are selfish, and they tend to do things in support of their interests or what they think their interests are. And that's just - that's how people have to be. And so when it comes to Trump's election, I think people vote for him for a variety of reasons. You know, maybe you voted for him because you think he's going to bring back coal mining jobs. And the flip side of that is a certain indifference to the concerns of other people. And I think indifference is - I think it can't be underestimated as a factor in what's going on now.
GREENE: Do you feel like you've changed going through this project?
THOMPSON: I still maintain my beliefs in, one, you know, calling myself an American and, two, judging people, if I have to judge them, as individuals. What's changed, I think, is my sympathy for people of color who just can't get there. But I choose to maintain this rootedness that I have in not being prejudiced and in identifying as an American.
GREENE: Clifford Thompson, a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
GREENE: Clifford Thompson - his new book is called "What It Is."
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