This is a letter that was sent to friends in our neighborhood in Longmont, Colorado (postmarked from Denver). D is brown, a 2nd generation Mexican/Spanish American (his father was born in Mexico, his mother’s ancestry is Spanish, he was born in Texas). S is white, with ancestry in the United Kingdom. And their three brown boys vary in age from four to 11 (all born in Longmont). D and S are teachers in our local public schools and leaders in our community, volunteering their time on many worthy projects (including herculean efforts in the aftermath of the flooding in 2013). In short, they’re great people and model citizens.
But that doesn’t matter.
Even if they were first generation immigrants, and not pillars of our community, nobody should be subjected to this kind of hate and harassment. I asked D if part of the fear that this letter instills is that he must now feel like he has to keep looking over his shoulder. Being a brown man, he said, he’s always had that feeling – but now it involves his family, too. If attacking someone based solely on the color of his skin isn’t egregious enough, the nefariousness of bringing his children into it is unconscionable. If this letter doesn’t enrage you, maybe you should check where you stand on Poppa’s Humanity Scale.
And there is a lot of rage, and sadness, and shock, and empathy surrounding this incident in our mostly white, mostly liberal, mostly middle class part of town. Across the tracks, a much higher proportion of people are Latino, many of their children bused into the elementary school in my neighborhood. What kind of degradations do they face on a regular basis?
White liberals like me are shocked when something like this occurs in our community. It is our privilege that affords us our outrage and indignation. We will not go to jail for it, or be deported, or be harassed. We are amazed that this could even happen in today’s society. People of color are not so shocked.
In addition to being shocked and angry when hearing about a racist incident, this is a time for white people to look within – what kind of privilege does our white skin afford us? For men, what does our male-ness afford us? For straight people, what advantages does that give us? What does our class standing, or our American-ness, or our health, or our education do for us?
White Christian conservatives purport to be even less convinced that this kind of discrimination persists (at least against people of color). In a recent poll, 43% of Republicans feel that whites face a lot of discrimination, whereas 27% feel that blacks face a lot of discrimination. In contrast, 87% of blacks feel that blacks face a lot of discrimination, while only 19% feel that whites face a lot of discrimination. Interestingly, among Democrats, 82% feel that blacks experience a lot of discrimination, whereas only 19% feel that whites face a lot of discrimination (similar percentages to how blacks feel).
The Great Divide
Why is there such a yawning gap between how those on the right and left see the issues of racism and discrimination? Is it because white Christians, now a minority in the United States, feel threatened? Most Republicans (about three-quarters of whom are white Christians) believe that it is extremely or very important that U.S. culture be grounded in Christian religious beliefs. Most Democrats (only 29% of whom are white Christians), on the other hand, believe that mixing cultures and values from around the world is extremely or very important to American identity. In 2008, 54% of Americans described themselves as white Christians; today, that number has dropped to 43%.
What are Christian religious beliefs? The United States may have been founded by a group of white male Christian elite slaveholders, but they had the foresight, in the First Amendment to the Constitution, to write “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg…. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” – Thomas Jefferson
“For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…. May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants.” – George Washington
“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous Life without the Assistance afforded by Religion; you having a clear Perception of the Advantages of Virtue and the Disadvantages of Vice, and possessing a Strength of Resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common Temptations.” – Benjamin Franklin
Today, many Christian conservatives are fond of pointing out that this country was founded on Christian values. If these quotes are any indication, though, the Founding Fathers believed that reason and virtue were the most important values, regardless of, and perhaps superseding, one’s faith. (Which isn’t to say that these guys had it all figured out because, of course, they were racist, and there is a legacy of racism in our culture that is centuries in the healing, but continues to fester.)
Reason and Virtue
I propose that, fundamentally, what really ought to matter to white Christians, and to white non-Christians and black people and brown people, is virtue and reason. To the extent that these are threatened, either from without or from within, we should resist together. All cultures harbor, to varying degrees, elements that attenuate virtue and reason, but I believe that any threats that immigrants or people of color may (or, more often, may not) present in this regard pale in comparison to the threats posed by American economic elites bent on keeping America divided for their own gain.
If more white Christians came to see virtue and reason, rather than religion itself (or, more nefariously, their white skin), as the primary bases of what we should value in our culture, I believe they would take a much different view of the direction that our culture is heading. Given the inexorable growth of knowledge in society, virtue and reason become an unstoppable force (as long as people don’t become complacent).
The United States, for all its faults, is the most diverse nation the world has ever seen. As a nation our values, our identity, are shaped by this diversity, and that’s part of our strength. This may be getting a little platitudinous, but when we compromise our virtue or when we lose sight of reason (these are, after all, our American values), we lose some of our American-ness.
The Regressive Strategy
In a recent post I posited that Regressives are distinct from everyday Republicans or conservatives. Most Republican voters and conservative thinkers actually want a better world. But Regressives are much more self-interested – they are the economic elites (the plutocrats) who work to undermine societal progress for their own benefit. Regressives have largely appropriated the national Republican Party.
It is no accident that large swaths of white America blame their ills on people of color. The Southern Strategy was a deliberate attempt by Republicans, beginning in the 1960s, to enlist white people to their cause by fomenting hate toward black people. That strategy has continued in various iterations to this day, as President Trump stokes resentment against immigrants and Muslims, while at the same time proposing legislation that will further erode the fortunes of his white base.
Conservative evangelicals present a perfect opportunity for manipulation. Going back to the Scopes trial, American Christians have been taught to distrust science and the media. Regressives saw this as an opportunity; they built upon this distrust of reason, and coupled it with the fear, anger, and hate exacerbated by the Southern Strategy. Eventually, “alternative” media outlets like Fox News played upon this fear and distrust, creating an army of angry white people.
Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio talk show host in Wisconsin for 25 years, summed it up this way in a recent New York Times op-ed:
[A]s we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited…. We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.
Which isn’t to say that the people who buy into this false narrative don’t have any culpability. Meanwhile, Regressive policies on everything from health care to taxes to worker protections to education made life worse for white Christians (and pretty much everybody else).
Whites without a college degree have seen an increase in mortality rates since 2000, largely as a result of drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver disease (termed “deaths of despair”). There is a tendency among liberals to discount the suffering of this group – oh, you poor white people, you are so oppressed. The fact is, a growing proportion of poor white people are beginning to experience the economic hardship that many people of color have always faced.
Regressives, while aggravating the desperation of many white people, have sought to channel the resultant depression, fear, and anger into hate for other groups (again, the people who practice hate share the responsibility). If Donald Trump is good at one thing, it is stirring up anger and hate in his base; hate crimes are on the rise under President Trump.
Hate may be an evolutionary adaptation to help protect complex communities against outside threats. Aside from helping to combat direct threats to a society (like invasion or war), hate may also play a role in curbing perceived internal threats, like changing demographics and growing inequality. Hate can empower the powerless, giving them a tool to eliminate perceived threats, but it comes at the cost of empathy and rational thinking. Taken to an extreme, hate extinguishes any hope of living a fulfilling life.
Progressives and especially Democrats have devoted less and less attention to poor, white, rural voters, and also to middle-class white suburban voters. Most of the attention these demographics receive is from Regressives (even if it is for sinister purposes). It’s time for Democrats to remember that they were once the party of the working class and the poor. Progressives need to reach out to suburban and rural areas and remind people that Progressive policies are their best hope, and that it is not immigrants and people of color and liberals that pose the threat – it is the very Regressives who have pretended to listen. Rather than give in to Regressive tendencies toward hate, a Progressive vision channels sadness, fear, and anger into action for positive change.
I’ve had a number of great conversations with D and S since the letter. One thing D said to me is that he’d like it if more white people were aware of what people of color have to endure, and that he wished we white people would be less complacent about it. We are working within our community to start a foundation (LongmontLoves.org) that will help distribute yard signs, set up community-wide block parties, and contribute to Progressive causes.
S, in a post after they received the letter, wrote:
To all who say that nothing has changed since Trump took office, I respectfully request that you read the hashtag at the close of this letter (and obviously the content). There is no denying that his hateful and fear-based rhetoric has far-reaching negative effects. He has given permission to those who hold racist views to voice their hatred. My family and I are certainly not the only ones to be on the receiving end of this, and there are countless others who have received far worse. But this is our home. And our neighborhood. And our country. And this is an unacceptable letter.
Here is my request. Be kind to each other. Treat others with even more compassion than ever before. Go out of your way to make friendly eye contact with strangers, with people who appear to be different than you (but who are truly, as fellow members of our human race, very much the same), and to quickly and firmly speak up against any hate based speech or act.
The photos in this post are from a gathering to support the values we care about in our community.
Further Reading (recommended by a good friend who is Iranian American)
 The letter that D and S received is primarily racist, but it also contains the xenophobic cliché “go back where you came from.” Despite the somber mood, D joked about where he was supposed to “go back to.” Texas? His boys are from Longmont, so where should they “go back to”? When you start telling 2nd and 3rd generation Americans to go back where they came from, it begs the question, how many generations does it take to become an American? I would guess that the letter writer has nothing on D, who likely has ancestry in the Americas going back about 14,000 years.
A long long time ago, there was a group of Americans who were justifiably worried about immigrants pouring into their land. I believe it was Sitting Bull who said, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing smallpox, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” White people sure did have a devastating impact on the way of life of the first Real Americans. [Back]
I think there’s a parallel with the English language, which contains vastly more words than any other language. This is because English is not xenophobic – English, a germanic language – incorporates multitudinous words from the Romance languages, as well as any other word that makes our language more robust: pajama (Farsi), boomerang (Australian aboriginal), jumbo (Swahili), ketchup (Cantonese?), taboo (Hawaiian), jungle (Hindi), behemoth (Hebrew), barbecue (Arawakan). [Back]
Democrats (with far fewer, but perhaps with growing numbers of, Regressives in their ranks) may have come to see many of these rural, white Christians as no longer part of their base, and thus have further exacerbated their woes. [Back]