A Moment of Truth for America
Racially motivated attacks have increased significantly since Donald Trump became a serious contender for the presidency and was then elected and installed as our 45th president. He has widely been blamed for this increase in racial attacks. There is no question that he bears some responsibility for encouraging white supremacist racism, blatant anti-Semitism, attacks on Muslims and recently on immigrants from India. By appointing arch racists like Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon to important policy making positions in his government, Trump has let it be known that he is not troubled by white racism. Similarly other forms of divisiveness have recently become normal and acceptable.
But, of course, the blame does not rest only with him. We may blame Trump for creating a climate in which it is acceptable to be very openly racist or anti-Semitic. It is now allowed to express racist emotions, attitudes and beliefs which before one needed to hide. Trump is in part to blame for that change. We may not hold him responsible, however, for the emotions, attitudes, and beliefs that are being expressed so openly now.
Trump is not to blame for this huge, until now underground, reservoir of racial hatred, of drawing passionate lines between "them" and "us." Many people have thought that the turmoil of the 1960s was resolved when Congress passed the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. The official story has since been that we have taken major steps to overcome our history of racial divides. While the struggle against racism and sexism has not been completed, there is progress being made every day and things are getting better as we speak.
This cheery story, we can now see, was mere self deception and ever since white people finally learned that young black men are ready targets for police shootings, that optimistic story has lost persuasiveness. The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s made certain racial actions illegal but it did not change the mindset of the people who thought that their white skin made them superior and allowed them to oppress persons of colour by any means necessary, including lynchings.
We need to remember that racial differences, particularly in the form of slavery, have been an unmet challenge of our American Republic from its inception. When they wrote the Constitution, the Founders disagreed sharply about slavery. They never resolved the issue.
The outcome of the Civil War was to force the South to give up its slave way of life. But very soon whites in the South and North came to various understandings which always meant increased suffering for the former slaves. Slavery was replaced by the Jim Crow system. The passage of the civil war amendments to the Constitution put an end to slavery but it did not put an end to the anti-black racism of many Americans both in the South and the North. To give just one example: the Social Security legislation that was passed during the New Deal was made acceptable to Southern senators by excluding agricultural and domestic workers – occupations largely staffed by African-Americans. No social security for them. The secret agreement remained that it was perfectly alright to exploit African Americans.
But it is futile to believe that you can force people not to be prejudiced, not to feel victimized, or under attack. Once it becomes illegal to be racist in one particular form, white supremacy and anti-Semitism and all its other variants simply take less obvious forms. The "Whites Only” signs are taken down but deeply ingrained attitudes change little.
America has never been willing to take on the divides between white and black, between native born and immigrant. Neither has it been willing to confront other basic divisions such as between classes, between professional elites and the common people. The "One Nation Indivisible" slogan we make our children repeat every morning they are in school only serves to conceal our unwillingness to confront boldly the many divisions that exist in our nation.
It is clearly important to address the more egregious manifestations of pervasive racism – discrimination in the job market, redlining in real estate, and the continued war on young black men by various police forces. But these ways of forcing various groups not to act out their racist view of the world, does not change those views. It only forces a different expression of those views.
I wrote about this problem in a recent blog. There is no question that overcoming these divisions is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Little is to be gained by having Whites and Blacks discuss their different views of the world. But it would be important for opposing groups to find common projects. We may not be able to agree on fundamental positions. But we could learn to work together and thereby create unity in action where unity in beliefs is unattainable.
We we face two tasks, not only one. We need to resist all injustices perpetrated by private individuals and the government. But we must also be aware that victories in those efforts only displace racist attitudes. We must, therefore, also try to create a climate where there is more willingness to cooperate, more willingness to seek projects that unify and allow the different fragments of our nation, if not to agree and unify around beliefs, at least to try to work together for the common good.
One method that has a venerable history is for white people to take the side of African-Americans, to support them in what ever way they believe they need to be supported. This was the practice – not always perfect – of the abolitionists, it was the practice of the young men and women who went into the South in 1963 and 1964 to show solidarity with African-American struggles for equality. It is the goal today of groups like SURJ (“Show up for Racial Justice”) to support movements like "Black Lives Matter."
Another way is to support Muslims and immigrants and to make sure that they are safe. Speak out quietly and calmly where persons are openly racist. Support all women in their struggle for equality. Support the victims of random arrests by ICE. ( US Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
There are ways of working towards unity in America. Making shows of disunity illegal is important but will not, by itself, create unity.