Article of the Day: October 21, 2020–Another sign of the Great Divide

This interracial couple got engaged in Obama’s America. Then Trump took office.

David and Jessica Figari are navigating racial and political divides in their country — and in their family — that they never anticipated when they fell in love

Sydney TrentOctober 20, 2020

On the already muggy morning of Aug. 28, 2013, David Figari and Jessica Jones held hands in the billowing crowd near the steps of the Georgetown University Law Center. The young lovers had traveled from Florida to meet each other’s relatives and attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The reminiscences from 1963 march veterans had ended and the trek to the Lincoln Memorial was about to begin when David saw an organizer standing near a microphone at the top of the stairs. He walked up to the man with the mic and introduced himself.

“Hey, I’d like to say something. Can I do it?” David said.

The man gave him the once-over and immediately said “No.”

“No, no, you don’t understand. I’d like to propose to my girlfriend.”

“No,” the man said again.

“I said, ‘No, you don’t understand,’” David said. “‘That’s my girlfriend.’”

He pointed to Jessica. Something clicked — this couple, this moment — and the man gasped.

“Everyone, everyone, really quick!” he announced. “David actually has something to say.”

David signaled Jessica to join him and took the microphone: “Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Today, I have a dream, and that is that one day Jessica will be my wife.”

As Jessica looked on incredulously, David, a White guy in a polo shirt and blue plaid shorts, got down on one knee before his Black girlfriend and asked, “Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” Jessica said quietly, before David slipped a white-gold ring with a princess-cut diamond on her finger. The marchers erupted into cheers and ran over to congratulate the newly engaged couple.The Figaris show off their “I voted” stickers after casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential election. (Family photo) 

They were college-educated 25-year-olds who had voted for the first Black president in the nation’s history and who viewed racism mostly as a relic of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Even as President Barack Obama and civil rights leaders warned the throngs on the Mall that day about the work that remained, a spirit of hope and racial progress pervaded the 50th anniversary of the march.

It was “perfect timing, the perfect event” to propose to Jessica, said David, now a private banker to wealthy clients. The power of love to transcend racial hatred “was exactly the whole point. It‘s why people were marching.”

But that vision of racial harmony soon dissipated like a mirage.

David and Jessica wed in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president. They celebrated the birth of their daughter, Liliana, in 2018, a year after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for the deadly Unite the Right rally. They bought their first home in the suburbs of Tampa last year, not long before Trump tweeted that four minority congresswomen — all citizens, three born in the United States ­­— should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

“It feels like a whole different country now than it did then,” said Jessica, an emergency-room nurse.

As President Trump seeks a second term, the couple, both 32, find themselves navigating racial and political divides they never anticipated when they got engaged. They view Trump as a racist and a threat to families like theirs. But even within their own family and circle of friends, there are people supporting the president who don’t see him that way. One of them is David’s father, Frank Figari.

‘That’s my boy’

One evening this summer, David decided to surprise his father with a visit from Liliana. He buckled the 2-year-old into the back seat of his blue Hyundai Sonata and drove the 15 minutes to the contemporary ranch house where he had grown up. He made a quick call to his dad to make sure he was home. Then he saw it as he approached the house — a rectangular blue sign planted firmly near the curb bordering his father’s wooded front yard. “Trump Pence 2020,” it read. Then in smaller letters: “Make America Great Again.”

David’s stomach dropped. “I felt physically ill,” David said. He couldn’t even bring himself to pull in the driveway to turn around. He drove past his father’s house and looped through a nearby cul-de-sac instead.

Frank Figari, a proud independent, had voted for Obama twice. Then, newly remarried to a Cuban American woman who is a fervent Trump supporter, he voted for Trump in 2016. With the election just weeks away, the former advertising salesman and self-employed home contractor was planning to vote for Trump again.

Though David spars frequently with his father over Trump, Black Lives Matter and racist policing, he decided not to confront Frank about the sign. He had made a New Year’s resolution that he would work hard “to be a better person,” and that meant preserving his relationship with his father, despite their political differences. But keeping his promise felt more difficult now, the sign a tangible obstacle every time his family visited.

Frank had been with David when he had first met Jessica in 2012. Father and son were at a nearby mall when David noticed a blue-and-white bloodmobile in the parking lot. David and his father knocked on the door and Jessica, then a phlebotomist, let them aboard.

As she went through the donor questionnaire with David, Jessica noted that he had the same birthday as her mother. David was captivated by Jessica’s gentle and affable manner. Plus, even in scrubs, he said, “she was just gorgeous.” When he and his father were finished giving blood, David lingered.

“Dad, I feel a little woozy,” he said. “I’m going to sit here and drink a little cranberry, eat a little cracker and meet you in the car.”

Jessica offered him a donor reward — a gift card to a steakhouse.

“Hey, Jessica, can I trade my gift card for something else instead?” David replied.

He asked for her phone number.

She wrote it down, and David rushed out to join his father in the car.

“You asked that Black girl out, didn’t you?” Frank said.

“Yeah,” David replied

His father beamed. “That’s my boy,” he said.The couple take a selfie in 2014 on a visit to the home of David’s father, Frank Figari, to watch a Florida State game. (Family photo) 

When it became clear David and Jessica were serious, Frank talked about buying Disney DVDs for the grandchildren.

This was the man David said had raised him. Frank had grown up in New Rochelle, N.Y., in a sprawling Italian American household. The family hosted elaborate Sunday gatherings, full of two-cheek kisses and raucous aunts, uncles and cousins.

After Frank married David’s mother, Jeannette, he quickly established the ethos that family, Italian-style, was everything. He showed his three sons, David, Austin and Chris — each born less than two years apart — how to change the brake fluid and oil on a car. “Figari Sundays” were spent repairing things: bathrooms, roofs, septic tanks.

Frank, David said, was passionate, funny and a verbal jouster — and more than the other siblings, both agree, his eldest son, David, takes after him. He taught his boys “a deal’s a deal,” Frank said. “If you tell me you’re going to do something or if I tell you I’m going to do something, it’s going to get done.”

And while the only Black person David can recall in his middle-class neighborhood was a girl who lived down the hill, he said he never heard either of his parents, now divorced, utter a bigoted word. A born salesman, Frank could find a way to connect with almost anyone, he said. He once told David that he had dated a Black girl in high school.

Jessica was the first Black woman David had ever dated, just as he was her first White boyfriend. Even so, the couple discovered they had much in common, especially a devotion to family.

‘Tomorrow people’

Jessica was an Army brat, moving with her parents 13 times around the United States as her father, Col. Roger Jones, rose up the ranks. They finally settled in Brandon, Fla., in 2006.

As the perpetual new girl, Jessica learned to downplay differences to make friends. Her parents taught their daughter to behave with dignity and self-control and warned her that she needed to work twice as hard to be noticed half as much, Jessica said.

In high school, she enrolled in Advance Placement classes, but acceptance was elusive. “The White people in the honors classes didn’t want to hang out with me, because I looked like people they didn’t want to hang out with,” Jessica said. “The Black kids didn’t always reach out to me, because I don’t know if they didn’t trust me or didn’t like the way I spoke.” So she mostly kept her head in her books, later graduating as valedictorian of her college nursing class.

Throughout Jessica’s peripatetic childhood, family was the biggest constant. She and her brother Ty, who is four years younger, had each other’s backs. And her parents — quiet and powerful Roger, a former Green Beret, and Marsha, an opinionated nurse — modeled the yin and yang of a happily married couple. Whenever they could, they visited their relatives in Hampton, Va., spending time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — a Black version of David’s Italian upbringing.

Now, all four of Liliana’s grandparents, plus uncles, aunts and cousins, live just a short drive away from David and Jessica’s multicultural suburban community.

Though interracial marriage was illegal in Florida and much of the South until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, there are growing numbers of couples like David and Jessica. In 2015, 1 in 6 newlyweds in the United States had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, a fivefold increase since 1967, according to the Pew Research Center. The percentage of Americans who say that more marriages across racial lines is “good for society” rose from 24 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2017.

The Figaris still sense this growing acceptance, despite the occasional stares or comments and the rising racial tensions around them.

David choked back tears when he recalled the controversial Cheerios commercial in 2013 that showcased a Black father, White mother and biracial daughter. He now sees a swelling pop-culture presence of cross-racial relationships similar to his and Jessica’s. He likes the term “tomorrow people” to describe children such as Liliana, coined from the TV show “Shameless.”

Jessica, a soft-spoken, deliberate woman wearing delicate pearl earrings and a pink T-shirt, put it more personally: “The longer we’re together, I stop seeing our differences and he’s just my husband. He’s just my David … whose heart I love so much.”

LEFT: White supremacists march on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017. A counterprotester would be killed during the Unite the Right rally the next day. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post) RIGHT: President Trump speaks about Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. He drew criticism three days later when he said there “were very fine people on both sides” of the deadly rally. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

‘I just don’t understand’

When the news of George Floyd’s death surfaced in her Facebook feed in May, Jessica quickly scrolled past it. Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes, appeared to be yet another Black man unjustly killed by a cop.

Jessica, who has treated covid-19 patients throughout the pandemic, was stressed, weary. But every time she checked her social feeds, there it was, the fury building. She needed to see it with her own eyes.

After work, Jessica sat down at the dining-room table to watch the video.

“I watched it start to finish,” she said, “and I just cried.”

“As a medical professional, you can see the respirations becoming labored,” she said. “You can see the point when he changes from a person who is alive to a dead person.”

That night Jessica dreamed that her father was gunned down by a police officer.

A few weeks later, someone organized a Black Lives Matter protest at a major intersection about a mile from their neighborhood. The nearby Wawa closed, wary of violence. Jessica had a shift that evening, but David wanted to attend.

“I don’t think you should go,” Jessica told him.

“Babe, I have to go,” David replied. “I have to do something.”

David dropped Liliana off at his mother-in-law’s that afternoon and headed over to the protest. He promised his wife he would not stay after dark.

The Figaris have never encountered physically threatening racism or slurs as a couple, but they sometimes run up against people who clearly don’t see them as they see themselves.

As they indulged their love of fine dining while dating, restaurant servers too often brought them separate checks. Once they strolled into a hotel lobby in Houston with their luggage, very clearly a couple. When David gave his name at the check-in desk, the woman behind the counter asked him whether he wanted separate rooms. Another time, passing through the airport in Atlanta holding hands with Liliana, they both felt the stares of White people as they passed. At a social gathering with David’s co-workers, an older White woman reached out and gently touched Jessica’s cheek. “I just love your people’s skin,” she said to Jessica, who was too stunned to speak. She and David left early.

David does not think such behavior, mostly by White people of their parents’ generation or older, can be chalked up to pure curiosity. It comes, he believes, from a less innocent place.

“Sometimes you want to just get up and shout, ‘What’s your problem?’” he said, voice rising. “We love each other. Just grow up, even though you’re 40 years older than us.”

The stares eased a bit after Liliana was born, their beautiful, vivacious little girl a bridge to strangers.

But Jessica has begun to feel increasingly unsettled by the country’s racial climate, clenching the steering wheel as a trucker rode too close behind her on her way home from work one night and warily sizing up White strangers to make sure they don’t disapprove of her family. She considered putting a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard but worried it could make her family a target for property destruction or police indifference.

The other night the Figaris were startled by the doorbell at 3 a.m. Jessica’s thoughts raced as David opened the front door without asking who was there. It was a police officer pointing out that their garage door was open.

Jessica’s emotions lurch when her family goes to visit her father-in-law and she sees the blue Trump sign planted in Frank’s front yard.

“I’ve had thoughts of defiling it or something like that,” Jessica said, though she knows she would not do it. But she feels hurt by her father-in-law’s support of Trump.

“I don’t know how they would reconcile that dissonance between Trump feeling like a threat to people like me, but also loving me,” she said. “That’s something I just don’t understand.”

To David, the sign symbolizes the country’s steep moral decline, and the kindling of White racism that could one day become a blaze. And spurring it all on, he believes, is President Trump.

“The cultist following, the ignorance and lies and hate — it’s astounding that people can’t see it,” David said. “I don’t understand how anyone can listen to the hate and stupidity and just not care.”

‘A deal’s-a-deal guy’

And yet Frank Figari does listen, and he believes in Trump. On visits to Frank’s home, David and Jessica talk about Liliana, food and football — anything but politics. “I feel like it may hurt our relationship,” Jessica said, “and I don’t want to get my feelings hurt.”

As a small-businessman, Frank said, he likes what Trump has done for the economy, even as he acknowledges that Obama got the ball rolling. He’s never owned a gun, but he appreciates the way Trump has increased funding for the military, because his son Chris is an Army ranger instructor.

Frank said he loathes white supremacists — “sharks in the water,” just like antifa, he said. But he doesn’t believe in the concept of White privilege. “I worked my ass off every day, and my kids have always been raised that way,” he said. Even so, he knows not everyone has the same opportunities.

He said racist policing is the result of “a few bad apples” and dismissed demands to defund the police. He sees racism as something that happens “on both sides.”

And he doesn’t get why people such as his son think Trump is a racist. While he doesn’t approve of the president’s charged rhetoric, he said, “it doesn’t matter to me what he says as long as what he does is for the betterment of the people.” And didn’t Trump improve the economy for everyone, including Blacks?

Above all, he believes the president is a man of his word — “a deal’s-a-deal guy,” just like him. “All I’ve ever ever wanted from my president is that whatever he said he was going to do. Just do it. … Get it done.”

The Trump sign in his yard, he said, symbolizes his American freedom to vote as he chooses. His support of the president has nothing to do with Jessica or her family.

His daughter-in-law is beautiful, kind “and very, very sharp” — in a word, “awesome,” Frank said. “David got very lucky in that respect. She has made him a better man.”

And Jessica’s family: “Exceptional people. As a family unit, I don’t think you can find better. They raised their children beautifully.” The Joneses and the Figaris have gathered as one sprawling extended family for Super Bowl watching and brunches out, the grandparents doting on Liliana.

“I really do pray that my granddaughter doesn’t experience racism,” Frank said.

TOP: The Figaris at home this month. BOTTOM LEFT: Jessica said of her daughter, “I would hope that she lives in a world of love and acceptance in her future.” BOTTOM RIGHT: David said he wants Liliana “to know that she’s loved and that she’s safe.” (Photos by Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

‘A world of love’

Just as David had a dream of marrying Jessica, the couple have a dream for Liliana’s life, too. As the little girl shifted between them babbling at the dining-room table on a recent afternoon, they took turns describing it out loud.

Jessica: “I think what I want for Liliana is for her to live in a world full of friends, full of love — not have to worry about who doesn’t like me or who doesn’t want to be friends based on how she looks. I would hope that she lives in a world of love and acceptance in her future.

“I still want her to be twice as good as everyone else, but just for the sake of being twice as good.”

David: “I want her to be brought up with the same kind of family values and to know that she’s loved and that she’s safe. … I don’t want to have to have a talk with her: ‘If the police come. Make sure you do this.’ If we didn’t have to have that talk, that’s a world that I would want for her.”

When he and Jessica cast their ballots in the presidential election, they will be voting to create that kind of life for Liliana — and that kind of country for themselves.

“Otherwise,” David asked, “what is the point of going to a march?”

About this story

Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by J.J. Evans. Designed by Alla Dreyvitser. 

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