In face of Trump's revised racist rhetoric, complacency is not an option
Originally published by USA Today on November 17, 2016.
Calls for 'law and order' cropped up during civil rights movement. Language's return places false blame, burden on minorities.
The United States has been an experiment in exclusion from the beginning.
The notion that this country was founded on the principle that all men are created equal has excused a lot of atrocities — to Native Americans, to black people, to women, to various waves of immigrants. Our country has always been a test of who gets to be included in “We the people.”
President-elect Donald Trump used the fear of an inclusive America to stoke a fire. Those of us who oppose Trump and the people he has emboldened by his victory are now told to be calm and accepting. We have been told to put our anger and protest aside to work toward uniting the country for the greater good.
The problem is that America's version of the greater good has always left the most vulnerable to fend for themselves. Those who say everything will be fine, to give Trump a chance, tend to have the least to lose.
Being in an interracial marriage, it knocks the wind out of me every time I'm reminded that interracial marriage was still outlawed in more than a dozen states just 49 years ago. That's not ancient history. Those unconstitutional laws existed for so long in part because good people remained silent. Good people kept quiet to the detriment of people of color and those who love us because it was the comfortable choice.
Silence can be the most dangerous trait of good people. The choice for action or inaction — and yes, that includes deciding not to vote — sends a signal about what is considered acceptable. And while some of his voters may not have held racist, misogynistic beliefs, that’s of little importance if the people at the top of the ticket plan to institute discriminatory policies.
Trump spouted racist, misogynistic propaganda long before he was a presidential candidate, like when he called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five in a full-page newspaper ad. Even though DNA evidence later proved those five black and Hispanic boys were innocent, just last month he still called them guilty.
Faced with Trump’s version of reality, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalist groups are celebrating, even planning a parade in honor of his victory. That Trump refuses to distance himself and our democracy from that hate is telling. Meanwhile, he found time to call Sen. Elizabeth Warren a “racist” and “a total fraud.”
His threats are often served light on details with heavy doses of fear-mongering. The fear now is that of the unknown. One example is the president-elect’s insistence that black people are “living in hell,” and that he’ll clean it up with “law and order.” What does that mean, exactly? To fix problems of police brutality, he puts the onus on the black community again by stating that stop-and-frisk will help cops catch the bad guys. His implication seems to be that catching the bad guys (at which stop-and-frisk has proved a total failure) will thereby lower the need for police to be brutal. Another thought that is misguided and scary.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander points out that “the rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the civil rights movement.” Those officials linked the civil rights movement to crime, much like a politician today might distort the purpose of Black Lives Matter, as proof that there was a breakdown of law and order.
“History reveals that the seeds of the new system of control were planted well before the end of the civil rights movement. A new race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments,” Alexander writes, adding that advocates found success “by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever.’ ” Most disturbingly, she later tells the story of one adviser to President Nixon who claimed the president “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
This was the crux of Trump’s campaign: making nationalism appear to be not linked to hate of others. Minorities have been painted with broad brushes, seen only as problems to be dealt with, not voices to be heard. Trump rounded up as many issues as he could — terrorism, job loss, crime — and dropped them at our feet. Then he pointed at us.
Trump supporters have tried to explain it away. They argue that this was about sending a message to establishment politicians. Yet he has now surrounded himself with establishment politicians. They say coastal elites are disconnected from middle America. And they want to be clear that the hateful actions are only of a few.
Could you imagine if that same level of empathy could be afforded to our Muslim, Hispanic and black communities?
Trump supporters who voted solely based on self-interests certainly have the right to do so. But the other half of American voters are scared because of what his potential policies stand to take away from us. His threats — to ban foreign Muslims from entering the U.S. and to register those here in a database, to deport undocumented immigrants by force, to punish women or their doctors for abortions — might not matter to you. And that's the thing: Discrimination is easy to ignore when it's not targeted at you. It's easier to ignore discrimination than it is to confront it.
“Selfishness, in so many circumstances, begets the same consequences as hate,” Jia Tolentino so eloquently explains in The New Yorker.
Or put another way: Bigotry doesn’t show up and introduce itself with a news conference; it slips in when you're not paying attention.
We don’t have to agree on politics to recognize each other’s humanity. Just like Trump supporters might be hurting, or hopeful to see progress in politics, so are we. That's why liberals supported a candidate like former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had a proven track record and experience working with people on both ends of the political spectrum. That’s why progressives were drawn to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had radical ideas based on the principle of taking care of each other. These were two candidates who, despite their differences, both campaigned to raise the minimum wage, to provide affordable health care for all, and to reduce our reliance on foreign energy and trade. We can and should debate the logistics of such plans. That’s what makes America great.
We cannot have a country where the privilege of one is placed on top of the pain of another. Yet that’s precisely what Trump’s practice has been in business, and appears to be in politics. And that’s why we’re scared.
For those of us who oppose Trump’s agenda, our fight now is to engage and agitate. We must find a way to move forward, get involved and bend the future toward justice. Most important, we the people must not forget from where we came and what we have yet to overcome.