Friday, November 11, 2016

The Racist Genie is Out of the Bottle (again)

Like many teachers across the country, I walked into my classroom for the first time after the election with a sense of trepidation. I teach a college freshman class focused on reading improvement. The class is quite diverse, about 55% African-American, 30% white, and 15% Hispanic. I planned to address the election because I knew it would be on the mind of all my students. I planned to show them the video of President Obama’s post-election speech from the White House lawn. The President, following the tradition of Presidents before him, sought to ensure a smooth transition and articulated a hope that all American citizens would work together for the success of a Trump presidency. I told the students that the President was trying to show us the best way to respond to surprising and perhaps worrying change.

I then asked the students to write in their interactive notebooks in response to this prompt: What are some of your worries and some of your hopes as we look forward to a Trump presidency? The students wrote for about 15 minutes and then I invited them to share. More hands went up than at any other time in the semester. Worries, for the most part followed a familiar pattern. Students of Hispanic descent cited fear that they or their friends and relatives would be targeted for deportation. Some students worried about the hateful targeting of their Muslim/Hispanic/African-American friends. Many students expressed surprise that so many women had voted for Trump in the wake of his sexist statements and behavior. One student worried that the election would further divide the country, while another student offered that he thought the campaign had divided the country long before the election took place and he blamed both candidates for taking the low road. The students were thoughtful and articulate and impassioned.

One student offered the hope that Trump would moderate his attacks on people of color, Muslims, immigrants and others now that he had won the election and realized he had to serve all of us. I said I thought we could all agree that this was greatly to be hoped.

And then it happened. Something I was not expecting, but something that brought great clarity to what this election really means to many of the young people in my classroom.

A normally quiet young woman raised her hand and said, “It is not so much Trump I am worried about, but his followers who now feel free to act out all their feelings towards minorities.” The young woman then went on to tell about three separate incidents of intimidation and bias that had been directed at her, on campus, to her face, since the election. The young woman, who is Hispanic and born in this country, was asked if she was ready to be deported now that Trump was elected. Other taunts of the “we are going to build that wall and send you back where you came from" variety came a little later and she reported them to campus authorities, all of them written down on her phone so she could get the language verbatim.

Another young woman raised her hand to report on a tweet she received that stated, “If my president can grab your pussy, then I can, too.” Other young women reported receiving the same tweet. Another student reported on a tweet she received saying that, “At last we won’t have to put up with those ‘things’ coming over the border, cause Trump is going to build a wall.” Several students reported on racist tweets that were circulating since the election. Another student said that friends reported to her that they had voted for Trump because every time they saw a Muslim on the street they were afraid and Trump was going to kick them out.

Trump’s campaign of hate has let the genie out of the bottle. The racism that is never far from the surface in America has been unleashed, has been made acceptable and has empowered the most bigoted in our society to own their bigotry as a weapon against all people they identify as the “other.” I talked briefly, trying to give all this context, about Germany in the 1930s and how the politics of fear can unleash the most horrific perversions of human behavior.

A young man raised his hand. “I am scared, and all my friends in the LGBT community are scared, too. We don’t know much about Trump’s position on LGBT rights, but we know all about his Vice President, Mike Pence’s, positions on gays and transgender people. I fear that since Trump doesn’t have any experience in governing, he will listen to people like Mike Pence.” The emotion in the young man’s voice was palpable. His classmates offered support, and I lost it.

“Look folks," I said. "This is not OK. You need to know that this is not OK. If any of you at any time are subject to any of these attacks, tweets, Facebook posts or just campus innuendo either because of your race, your gender, your sexual identity, please report what has happened immediately. If you are afraid to report it to the authorities on campus, come to me and we will do it together. This must stop now.”

It was a highly emotional classroom. We never got to the planned essay reading for the day. Class ended in hugs and attempted reassurance. When I got home and shared with my wife, she told me about news reports coming in from around the country of similar types of intimidation and race baiting in schools and public places.

This morning the New York Times published an editorial asking that the President-elect directly and immediately denounce the hate and let his supporters know that this targeting behavior is not OK. But once you let the hate genie out of the bottle, it is devilishly difficult to put it back in. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are never far from the surface in this country and when these baser instincts of humans seem to have the imprimatur of the leader of the country, it may take a lifetime to tame them.

As teachers, we need to be on guard and vigilant. We must re-double our efforts to make sure the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, the locker room, the campus are safe for all people, including Trump supporters, who will almost certainly be the targets of backlash as well.

In 1992, Rodney King, the African-American victim of a brutal police beating in Los Angeles asked, “Can we all get along?” Apparently not, Rodney. Not yet, anyway. There is still a lot of work to be done.