Sunday, November 27, 2016

In Defense of Rural America

Let me be clear from the outset: I am not defending anyone's decision to vote for Donald Trump. If you know me in any context, you know that I am working day and night to try to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President. I respect differing viewpoints, but I believe there is a line where the question crosses from one of differing political views to one of character.

In theory, it's very black and white to me: a decent human being does not vote for someone who has threatened to force all Muslims to register with the government, who has suggested that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. That's an easy concept, in the abstract, and I have seen it voiced loudly, frequently and often viciously among the people at my side in the trenches over the past weeks.

I get it.

But, I'm burdened by reality.

I've lived in the rural Midwest for most of my adult life. I currently live in a county that went 59.32% for Donald Trump, and I suspect that number would have been higher had Gary Johnson not been in the running. During the years that I lived in the suburbs, one of my primary life goals was to get back to this small town. There were many reasons for that, but one of the most significant was the way people treated one another.

I heard what you just thought. I can see it in your head, that lily white little Mayberry town where everyone treats each other well because they're all exactly alike.

23.5 percent of my little Mayberry town is Hispanic. Our public schools were in the first wave of testing dual language education. Though the numbers are smaller, we are also home to African Americans, Asians of various descent and a small number of native Americans.

On my block alone there are whites, blacks, Mexicans and two Muslim families whose national heritage I do not know. By and large, no one gives a crap. And yet, there is a kind of ingrained racism in many.

My daughter works in a farm store, and several times each week someone--usually an older farmer--makes a snide comment about how he has to select English on the card reader. This is America, isn't it?

It makes her blood boil to the point that I fully expect that one day she will quit or get fired as a result of one of those conversations. Yet, having lived among these particular people for more than ten years and people like them for longer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that if any of them had an elderly Mexican neighbor who didn't speak English, the vast majority of those crochety old farmers would bend over backward to help her.

It was in this town that my white, agnostic-Wiccan blend daughter met her autistic, Mexican, paganish boyfriend while they were both volunteering for a Christian charity that embraced them both with open arms.

I've heard that kind of dissonance described as hypocritical, but I think it's something else entirely. The person standing next to you is a person, regardless of race, color or creed. You hear the things he says and see the way he behaves and share a laugh with him, and it's impossible to miss the fact that he's more like you than he is different. You don't assume a man is lazy when he's working beside you--you observe that he is or is not. You don't apply statistics from possibly-biased news sources to determine whether the single mother who lives next door to you depends on welfare--you see her leaving for work in the morning. In the face of three-dimensional humanity, those superficial characteristics like skin color and marital status fade into the background.

Black, white, Christian, gay, Muslim, Hindu, Middle Eastern, Mexican, straight..those are concepts. It's easy to attach a stereotype to a concept, or to seize hold of the stereotype that's offered to you. In theory, it shouldn't be. In theory, the idea that black men are criminals should clash in your mind with the fact of the black accountant down the hall at work who plays chess with you during lunch. But concepts are different from individual human beings around them--just like the concept of a person who would vote for Donald Trump is different than the individual humans around me.

That doesn't make the things they say okay. It doesn't make the fact that they've elected a crazy man who seems to hate everyone except the President of the Russian Federation to the presidency okay. But, it does bear thinking about, because while that war is going on between the minorities and liberal activists on one side and the guys in white rural America who bitch about the card machine but don't think much about race when confronted with an actual human, the real enemy is largely unattended.

The guys who voted for Trump not believing he could do what he said, taking it as the same kind of rhetoric as bitching about the card reader, believing he'd be a change and another career politician was the last thing we needed--they're an easy target. But, they're an easy target because they're not suited up for battle. They're just going about their lives. They're guilty, perhaps, of not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, of making decisions in the abstract, of not considering those individual human who will be affected. They're guilty, perhaps, of focusing too exclusively on how they and their families will be affected and not giving enough consideration to the world at large. That's wrong.

But, it doesn't change because we villainize them. It doesn't change because we force them down off the fence and onto the other side.

There are more good people in this country than there are bad We can't spare any.

I haven't come to writing this post easily. Like many of you, I woke up on the morning after the election feeling like I'd been transported into a strange and hostile territory. I didn't feel entirely safe going outside, and I'm a white professional. That hasn't magically disappeared. I don't know how to tell which of these people around me is part of the "he says what we've all been thinking" brigade. It troubles me deeply that I might unwittingly be sitting next to someone who has been secretly thinking those things.

But here's what I know: these people around me, people the returns say overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, have been by my side stocking shelves in the food pantry, Christmas shopping for children in need, feeding the hungry, raising funds for any number of important causes, running food drives and coat drives and making nursing home visits and donating books and...(you get the idea) to help people of all races and religions.

And, they're people who take the time to listen. People who don't mind giving you a ride even though you live ten miles outside town. People who will offer you their umbrella to take with you, or the coat they're wearing.

They're imperfect, like all of us. Some of them have big things to learn about the world beyond the borders of their little towns and the harm that casual, theoretical racism can do. But we're at war. And, we have limited resources. Do you want to go to war with the guy who bitches about the card reader and then drops off a nice big check to the soup kitchen serving the Mexican-dominated trailer park, or with the ones who spray paint slurs on walls and assault people who don't look like them and gather together in back rooms to work out a viable plan for registering Muslims?

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Flipside of Empowering Racists

I've heard a lot of concerns voiced over the past several months about how Donald Trump's rhetoric has empowered racists to come out of the closet and vent their hatred. To a degree, I view that as a positive sign: if that kind of poison is roiling around in the brain of the person sitting next to me on the bus or working in my office, I want to know about it.

Others, though, have rightly pointed out that it is dangerous. The racism that's been unleashed isn't just about people outing themselves because they finally feel like it's acceptable to be a bigot--there's also violence. It's clear that more people are at risk since Trump started saying those things racists believe everyone was thinking, and especially since the election created the impression that the majority of Americans agree with him.

But something else is happening, too.

Something I've seen congratulated and celebrated again and again at an individual level, but not recognized as a trend.

Good people are coming out of the closet, too. People who used to mind their own business are speaking up for a colleague when a racist comment is made. People who haven't mentioned a gay brother or Muslim son-in-law in social media because there was just no reason to make waves have recognized that if those things make waves, the problem lies with the other person.

They're often small acts--a comment made, an action reported, a disagreement where they once would have remained silent. But they're spreading. Just as racists and sexists and xenophobes and whatever it is that we call people who get unduly fussed about other people's sex lives are increasingly showing their true colors in public, so are those who recognize that humans are humans...and that the broken ones are those who can't see that.

Those bigots who are feeling liberated right now may just be in for a surprise.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dear White People: Smile, Whether You Feel Like It or Not

I worked for legal aid in Georgia during the summer of 1990, and I saw many upsetting things. I saw large employers who paid training wages and no benefits for the first 90 days and then trumped up a reason to fire everyone before the higher rates kicked in and start over; prisoners with serious medical conditions denied access to care; manufactured reasons for keeping prisoners from the law library and even their own attorneys; restaurant management who apologized to white customers because there were "so many niggers" in the place and promised that they were working on it and much more... including a black activist who suggested to the crowd listening to him speak that perhaps they should kill me, since I was well-dressed and white.

None of that was the worst thing I saw that summer. The worst thing was the acceptance. The kind, smart, accomplished black women I worked with who comforted me and tried to get me to understand that the systemic racism was just how it was. The man who looked at me incredulously in a group of 15-20 people he did not know and confidently said, "Of course niggers are inferior." And, most of all, the number of black men who would avert their eyes, step to the side, even cross the street to avoid coming in contact with me as I walked along the sidewalk, and the way they would startle and look frightened if I smiled and said hello.

I learned that it was kinder not to greet them, though it never came naturally.

26 years have passed and, safely back in Illinois, I've chosen to assume that even in Augusta, Georgia, it is no longer shocking for a member of one race to greet another on the street. I've chosen to believe that no decent, hard-working adult feels he has to cross the street in deference to or fear of a member of another race.

Maybe it was even true. It was certainly true in my Midwestern world, where I'd never seen that sort of behavior in my life.

Like it or not, we woke up in a New America on Wednesday. Since then, I've been experiencing things that I'd never seen in Illinois before, that I saw only in the deep south more than a quarter of a century ago.

Wednesday afternoon, I shouted (at my dog, but he was out of sight) and a Muslim woman who happened to be driving down my tiny residential street with her child stopped her car and backed up, watching warily to see what I would do next. The next day, as I walked down the street alone, and elderly Mexican man stepped onto his porch a few houses ahead, saw me, froze with his hand on the door, and after looking at me for several seconds backed back into his house. This morning, a young Mexican man rounding the corner of his house saw me coming and simply stopped walking and stood perfectly still, half sheltered by the corner of his house, until I smiled and said good morning. He didn't answer, but he started moving again.

I'm not going to live in that world, and I hope you don't want to either.

So, what I'm asking is that if you're white, you remember that the onus is on you. As sick and afraid and angry and depressed and (insert every negative descriptor you know) as we may all be feeling, most of us white people aren't feeling directly threatened.

I find it unsettling, encountering another person on the street and not knowing what's in his or her head or heart. I feel a little bit like I've stumbled into an alien world where I can't tell the humans from the monsters. But, I'm not monster food.

I don't feel much like socializing. I'm not brimming with love for my fellow man right now. I definitely don't feel like smiling. But, I have to. And, if you're a decent human being who happens to be white, you do, too.

If your expression reflects how you're feeling in the wake of this election, every person of color, unpopular religious affiliation or alternate sexual orientation you pass on the street may reasonably believe you're making that face at him or her...and maybe it means you're hoping he gets deported, or that her "sick relationship" is finally torn apart, or even that someone would shoot him. Maybe that you could shoot him.

So smile, whether you feel it or not. Be friendly like someone's life depends on it, because it just might.

Note: I know the past couple of posts here have been unusual for this blog. I have a political/social blog, and of course considered keeping this content there rather than on my personal blog. In the end, though, I decided that there wasn't much that was more personal to me than the way human beings treat one another in the world around me. There are many other things going on in my life right now--a cool book project, a new granddaughter and more. But the biggest thing in my life right now, and I suspect for some time to come, is how I can do my part to make the people around me whose only crime is to have the "wrong" skin color or worship the "wrong" God or sleep with the "wrong" gender feel safe again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

If you are a minority in America this morning...

I’m sorry.

Like most people I know, I went to bed last night and woke up this morning sick and frightened. There have been many political candidates I disagreed with and even believed destructive over the years, but this is not that. I woke up to discover that I’d been crying in my sleep, something that has happened only a few times in my life and not for many years.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next, or how I’m supposed to interact with the people around me. My concern isn’t just the chaos and violence that is surely right around the corner, but also this horrible thing I have learned about the people I encounter in daily life.

But, I am a white professional. If I choose to, I can simply shut up and I will be safe and accepted among the people who voted to microchip you, deport you, bar you from an entire country based on the color of your skin or where you were born or the religion you practice.

I know my fear and uncertainty can’t possibly scratch the surface of yours.

I also know I can’t eliminate your fear and uncertainty. It’s well-founded. It may keep you alive. But, I do want to say two things that I hope you will hear and believe in.

The first is that you are not alone. For every person standing behind you in the grocery line who believes that Donald Trump said what we were all thinking, there is at least one who clearly sees that you’re a valuable human being who, in the most fundamental ways, is just like us. There are millions of people of all races and religions and ages and educational levels and shoe sizes who are prepared to fight for you.

The second is please, please don’t lash out. I understand the inclination, if you’re experiencing it. I think I might want to smash some things myself, if I didn’t feel so completely depleted. You will undoubtedly be provoked in a thousand ways in the days to come. But, those who provoke you know exactly what they’re doing. They want you arrested. They want viral videos that are edited to cut out the provocation and show only your angry response. They know there are millions of people in the neutral zone right now who can be turned against you.

Don’t let them frame the discussion. Don’t let them manipulate you into becoming the poster child for their campaign to amp up the hate, to mischaracterize everyone whose skin color matches yours or who wears the same type of clothing you do.

Watch your back, but do it with your head held high, and never forget that no matter how it looks right now, there are more of us than there are of them.