Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in East Texas, there was no lack of racism, bigotry, or hatred of select groups that stood out from the lily white, mostly Protestant population base in which we lived. As children, we were not so much taught hatred and bigotry as we assimilated it from our parents, ministers, school teachers, coaches, and just about everyone in a position of authority we encountered. We went to all white schools, churches, and social functions from the county fair to Friday night football games.
As hard as it is believe in our small East Texas hick town at that time, Hispanics and Jewish people were not present in our lives. I can not remember a single Hispanic family living in any neighborhood in the area. One Jewish family lived in town, but in our naive vision of the world, they seemed like ordinary people who were embraced by the majority of the population as one of our own. I say “majority”, not because I know there were those who may have felt animosity toward them, but back then, because I never saw or knew of them does not mean they were not present.
Five miles to the east of town was a even smaller community where the vast majority of Black families lived. In the 2001 census, Blacks made up 90 percent of the population, and I suspect that ratio would apply back when I was growing up. There was little commercial infrastructure in town other than a small gasoline/grocery store that sat at the main intersection of town. For all practical purposes, they were a part of our world in a commercial, if not cultural, sense. Their school was located within our borders. The one movie theater in town segregated them to the upper balcony. They were segregated at the doctor’s offices, the hospitals, and few, if any, commercial venues like restaurants or bars allowed them on the premises.
These are my roots, and I want to say I am not proud of the fact that my family was part and parcel of this dynamic. As a child, I had no choice. My parents were so steeped in the Southern tradition of racism and bigotry, and their lives were defined by it. The notion of raising their children any other way other than the way they were raised was simply unthinkable. We were living in a toxic bubble that allowed no room for enlightened change or ideas that went counter to the zeitgeist of the times. In a very real sense, we were no different from any other small town across the deep South.
The first chink in the racism armor came in 1964-65 when my hometown was forced to integrate the public schools. In their skewed wisdom, the city fathers decided to take a end around approach to desegregation. While whites had separate elementary, middle and high schools, the Black community had only one school housing all students until the early 1960s when a Black elementary school opened. A few black students opted to attend the various white schools in town, but it was not until 1969 when the last Black class graduated and the school was closed.
Of the Blacks who chose to attend the white high school the first year, three athletes were among them. These three young men became the first Black people I (and my football teammates) got to know personally. They worked hard to gain our acceptance, which could not have been easy for them. Yet, they became our friends and taught us that skin color was not a barometer of a person’s worth, or something to judge others on because they were different from the majority. We were after all young men with a world of experience ahead of us. For the first time in our short lives, I began to question the negative stereotypes our parents and environment had foisted on us without our permission.
That was 50 years ago. For a good part of my adult life, I had to fight back the powerful pull of racist thinking from my past. It was not easy in the beginning, but I was lucky and left home as soon as I could and moved on, leaving behind the ever-present pall of racism my hometown and family still lived under. It was difficult, but eventually, thorough education and a series of enlightened friends and acquaintances, I grew past the teachings of my youth and learned to accept people for who they are, not who they are based on fear and negativity. Honestly, I had hoped America had, on the whole, done the same.
Then, along came Donald.
In the run up to the midterm elections, Trump has, and continues pulling out all the stops to fire up his band of deplorables. His sidling up to white supremacist and the dark racists side of his base through his embracing of “nationalism” is both disheartening and a little frightening. The thing about racism is that it is insidious, and at the same time, it debases, not just the target of the racist act, but the perpetrators as well. While I believe as a child I had no choice about the racial undertones under which I was raised, once grown and old enough to think on my own, it became evident that racism is not genetic, but a choice that a person has to make by disregarding common sense and the humanity of both themselves and those it is directed at in the end.
The one overriding component of a racist’s mentality is fear. Fear of the other. Fear of those people not like themselves. In the case of many of Trump’s older, white base, the fear of being displaced by brown or black people, especially brown people, and losing their time honored position at the top of the racial food chain is paramount. Of course, fear fuels hatred, which ultimately, is expressed by anger, and eventually with enough goading and baiting as Trump is wont to do, acting out on that anger.
Americans saw the end result of Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric last week when the FBI took bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc Jr. into custody for mailing 13 packages containing pipe bombs to Democratic politicians, donors and CNN. While none of the intended recipients were hurt, later in the week things turned ugly and deadly when Robert D. Bowers entered a Pittsburgh Jewish synagogue, The Tree of Life Congregation, with an AR-15 and three handguns and opened fire. Eleven people were killed and six others were wounded including four police officers.
The link between Sayoc and Trump is easily traceable. He attended Trump rallies in the past and had plastered his van with images of Trump and related hot button topics. Bowers’ relationship was more muted. A neo-Nazi, Bowers spent time on the website, Gab which, as you would expect, is a place for people like him to go and vent with like minded people. Supposedly, Bowers hated Trump, but not for obvious reasons. He felt Trump was not anti-Semitic enough for his tastes. Regardless, Trump’s rhetoric and constant blowing dog whistles certainly a deadly climate for both men to become emboldened enough to act out theirs evil deeds.
Trump’s modus opernadi is to play on the weaknesses of his followers. Racism, hatred, nationalistic tendencies are all fair game when it comes to Trump getting his way. The coming midterm election has caused him to ramp up his rhetoric, and his actions are becoming increasingly draconian. The caravan of ragtag men, women, and children traversing Mexico from Honduras headed for the United States’ southern border are suddenly an invasion. His attacks on the media as enemy of the people continue and will surely end in someone getting hurt or killed.
Yet, this is the America that we live in today. The gap between Trump’s deplorables and the rest of us is huge and will not be spanned easily or soon. As long as there is inequality in wealth, social mores, ideological differences, and of course, racism, fear, and hate, this is our fate. We can not afford to give in to these forces, but we can not afford not to confront them either. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Trump’s deplorables are not our enemy. They are our fellow Americans. It is up to all of us to remember that and find a way to span the gulf separating us as a nation. If we do not, no one is going to come out of this a winner.