Normalizing Hate

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Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

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FOMO Foments Prejudice

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Social Media GraphicsMy kids use a lot of texting abbreviations that it has taken me a while to figure out. One of them is FOMO: fear of missing out. In the social life of young people, fear of missing out is what keeps them tied to their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram to see what their peers are doing at any given moment.

But FOMO is also a dangerous human tendency. In times of economic insecurity, people worry that they won’t get their share of resources. Often they project their lack on others they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs.

Donald Trump has exploited this insecurity by pitting Americans against Hispanic immigrants coming across the border “to get our jobs.” He has increasingly favored protectionist trade policies because he perceives other countries – particularly Mexico, Canada, and China – as having taken unfair advantage of America. And these policies have effects. Yesterday the Dow plummeted in the face of China’s retaliatory trade tariffs.

Throughout the history of the United States, particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups were used as scapegoats for citizens’ insecurities and fears about not having enough. Many of us have ancestors of Italian, Irish, German, or Polish descent who recounted stories of discrimination and hatred when they began arriving on the shores of America. Japanese and Chinese immigrants faced even worse persecution, as did blacks whose ancestors were slaves and those who immigrated more recently from the African continent and the Caribbean.

Sadly, the human condition has not changed much over the centuries. Nowadays, people of Middle Eastern descent, especially Muslims, are targets of hatred and fear for many Americans. Jews are still being targeted for hate crimes and stereotyped as money hungry connivers who are trying to take over all aspects of American commerce. Even “model minorities” from East Asia, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Indians, are being met more and more with resistance on the part of Americans who feel they are making too many inroads into our prosperous society.

A case in point is the story of a bus company in Champaign, Illinois, called Suburban Express. Suburban Express conveyed students to and from the University of Illinois campus for years. However, in recent years, the company came under fire for discriminatory advertising and business practices. For instance, the company sent out an email ad that promised, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Furthermore, according to the Champaign News Gazette,

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.” (“Suburban Express Shuts Down,” News Gazette, May 7, 2019)

Suburban Express ceased operations after it was sued by the Illinois Attorney General, and a consent decree cost the company $100,000. The unrepentant owner declared he was shutting down because running the business wasn’t fun any more. I guess it’s no fun if you can’t publicly mock minorities.

As the mother of a Chinese American daughter, this attitude sickens me. Even before the blatantly racist actions of the bus company came to light, I would sometimes hear complaints from friends and acquaintances about the large numbers of Chinese nationals attending the University of Illinois. They seemed to feel that the Chinese students were making it harder for their own children to gain access to the state’s premier public university.

I don’t think it’s racist to argue about how many out of state students should be allowed to attend a university partly subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. In fact, about a decade ago, Illinois residents decried a dramatic increase in out of state acceptances, and the university backed down, keeping the numbers of Illinois residents attending U of I at a large majority.

However, I can’t help feeling that this animosity toward Asian-born students in particular is tinged with racism. I doubt there would be much hue and cry if German or Swedish nationals started descending on the Illinois university system in large numbers. Because Asians are so readily identifiable and less likely to speak mellifluous English, they are unfairly singled out for scorn and discrimination.

Our society is stronger when we welcome and accept people of all different persuasions. Instead of looking for scapegoats for our societal ills, we should be addressing issues such as underemployment and unequal education head on. Let’s not use our FOMO as an excuse to deny the humanity and dignity of others.

Privilege

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IMG_E1701I’m on the campus of an Ivy League college so that my daughter can attend a soccer camp for high school girls.

The above statement reeks of privilege. How many teenagers with some promise in the field of soccer are able to travel to and attend such a camp? How many parents can afford to take the time to bring them? Furthermore, our daughter’s skill has been developed over years of participation in expensive club soccer, an opportunity unavailable to many youngsters in America.

I’m not trying to apologize for my ability to give my child opportunities or advantages. But neither can I ignore that many of the things my family takes for granted in our lives are the result of white middle class privilege. Conservatives may roll their eyes at the idea of “white privilege,” but recognizing the pervasive influence of race and social class on upward mobility is well overdue in our society.

Americans like to think our democracy assures that the American Dream is equally available to anyone willing to work hard. But the limitations put on some Americans, particularly African Americans, date back to the days of slavery. With a legacy of enslavement, brutal treatment, being denied an education, and Jim Crow laws keeping the races separate, black Americans have never been able to catch up to whites in terms of equality of opportunity.

The separate and unequal world of African Americans comes to light in the excellent Showtime series The Chi, a show set on the south side of Chicago. In the series, characters struggle to make ends meet and often find that the only way to make real money is to “hustle” – that is, to find illegal ways of making money. They live in a blighted neighborhood where gangs control various streets and a gangster mentality even infiltrates the lives of impressionable middle schoolers. And even those who tow the line with gainful employment and an attempt to raise morally upstanding children find their loved ones victimized by the random violence on the streets.

It’s hard to square the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story of American opportunity with today’s world in which black youngsters working a paper route have the police called on them for no reason other than the color of their skin. Young black men, in particular, live under a cloud of suspicion that would make any white person positively murderous with rage if they were to experience it. For instance, filmmaker Daveed Diggs recalls that when he was in his 20s, he was pulled over by the police about 36 times in 3 years.

I’m not trying to suggest that whites apologize for being white. However, we need to support efforts to even the playing field, such as affirmative action and police reform. We need to make a serious investment in minority neighborhoods to bring true economic opportunity. Most importantly, we can’t sit smugly in our white privilege and insist that we’ve gotten where we are purely by dint of hard work.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to afford my daughter opportunities in life that will, I hope, lead to success and happiness for her. All I’m asking is that as a society, we work to make opportunities available to all, regardless of the accident of their birth.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

A Safe Space

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In the past few months, protests have roiled college campuses as many students have become fed up with a system that fails to address racism and cultural insensitivity on the part of both students and staff. From Yale to Missouri to the Claremont Colleges in California, these students have assembled to demand change and, in some cases, to force college administrators to resign.

Many in the media have decried what they see as political correctness run amok, particularly in the demand for “safe spaces” on campus for students of color and other minority groups, such as gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. While I agree that creating these permanent safe spaces for minorities is a bad idea, I disagree on the reasons put forward by these pundits.

Critics of the safe space movement argue that students these days are too sensitive and should not be coddled. I disagree. When students are subjected to racial epithets, culturally denigrating costumes, and exclusionary attitudes, they are not being babies. College administrators need to be firm about disciplining acts of bullying, whether they be physical or verbal. A young woman subjected to leers and catcalls, a Hispanic or Asian student told to go back to where they came from, or a student mocked for his or her sexual orientation all deserve to be protected from such bullying.

Critics will argue that these prejudices exist in the real world, so students may as well get used to dealing with them. I have news for these critics. Minority members are all too familiar with discrimination in their so-called real lives by the time they get to college. There is nothing wrong with a college fostering some sensitivity towards people’s differences.

Another argument is that minority students’ demands have shut down debate and true academic inquiry on college campuses. While there may be cases where students have gone to extremes in their definitions of hate speech, for the most part, students just want to be respected. There is a big difference between an argument in a college course over a racially sensitive issue, for example, and hurling racial slurs at each other.

Whites need to concede that most colleges intrinsically cater to their culture. Because whites are in the majority on most college campuses, white culture is seen to be the norm while other cultures are looked upon as different or even alien. A case in point is the protest that erupted over Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students referring to “the CMC mold” in an email to a Latina student. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2016) The dean meant well. She was trying to explain her determination to assist minority students, but her language betrayed the reality of many college situations. There is a “mold” that non-white and non-heterosexual students do not fit.

All those things being said, I think designating permanent safe spaces on campus for individual groups is a mistake. For one thing, all students should have access to all campus facilities. It’s not right to say that a certain space is only for, say, Asian students to congregate in. I also think providing so-called safe spaces puts the administration in the business of promoting segregation. While I firmly believe individuals have the right to associate with whomever they want, I don’t think such segregation should be encouraged by the college administration.

All colleges should be safe spaces in which students of varying races, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations should be able to explore, learn, meet, argue, and grow as individuals. College administrators should absolutely address students’ grievances, and I applaud these young people for standing up for what they believe in.

Our society seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have our first black president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. On the other hand, we have frustration and underemployment for many middle class Americans. It’s not hard to see how such uncertainties can create a backlash as we look for a scapegoat. But our colleges are a key part of our future, and we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of background, if we are to continue our tradition of excellence in America.

 

Disgraced

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Who are we beyond our race and religion? What is the cost of rejecting our cultural and religious heritage? Is admiration for another culture actually appropriation? Of whom should we be afraid? Does treating people like terrorists radicalize them?

These are some of the penetrating questions asked by Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced. Set in a post 9/11 New York, the drama revolves around Pakistani immigrant Amir, who has disavowed his Muslim background and become a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney at a powerful firm. When his idealistic Caucasian wife asks him to get involved in the case of a local imam accused of funding terrorism, things unravel for the couple, their relatives, and friends.

While Disgraced gives no easy answers, the play implies that our hatreds and prejudices lurk uneasily just under the surface of our politically correct veneer. As the couple and their two colleagues/friends, also a married couple, converge at a dinner party, alcohol loosens tongues and inhibitions, and things go horribly awry.

Akhtar has also written an interesting novel titled American Dervish that explores a young Muslim boy’s coming of age and wrestling with the expectations of his parents, his insular Pakistani community, and the deeply held faith of a beloved family friend. The difficulty of being a “hyphenated” American and the temptation to erase one’s ethnicity seem to be themes in Akhtar’s work.

Successive generations of Americans have struggled with this tension between assimilation and appreciation for one’s cultural heritage. In the play, a character has changed his name to one that sounds less “Muslim.” A similar phenomenon occurred during World War II when Jewish and German Americans hid their backgrounds by Americanizing their names. In today’s society, blacks are often criticized for naming their children unique and colorful names, some of which reflect their African roots, and most of which reflect pride in a black culture that grew up alongside mainstream white culture in the United States.

There is a human tendency to categorize people – by race, religion, ethnicity, social class. We ask the seemingly innocent question, “What kind of name is that?” or “Where are you from?” to someone who seems different from ourselves. We hold in our minds the stereotypes that go along with a given group. Taken too far, we assume the worst of someone whose race or religion are very different from our own. And we act, often in destructive ways, towards those we don’t understand and so fear.

Disgraced is 80 minutes of heart-pounding tension and a sense of unease. The audience is taken out of its comfort zone and asked to examine its own prejudices and fervently held beliefs. It is not an easy play to watch, yet the issues it brings up are absolutely essential for Americans to consider in the current age of globalization and worldwide unrest.

Reflections on a Race Riot

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Baltimore is burning. The recent riots, which followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, have sent the media into a frenzy of sensationalism and recrimination. For the most part, black residents in the inner city of Baltimore have been portrayed as lawless thugs eager to destroy property and harm police officers. The much greater number of peaceful protesters was largely ignored, their hand-in-hand march not exciting enough to capture  media attention.

My first reaction upon seeing bricks hurled at police officers and store windows shattered was to agree with the conventional narrative. Of course blacks should be outraged, but this was no way to further their cause etc. etc. But the more I saw and read, the more I realized that I had failed to grasp the anger and hopelessness that led to this point.

As author and activist Kevin Powell wrote, “Any people with nothing to lose will destroy anything in their way. Any people who feel as if their lives are not valued, like they are second-class citizens at best, will not be stopped until they’ve made their point.”

The death of Freddie Gray was not an isolated incident but a pattern of police behavior when it comes to blacks in America. It is a system that must be addressed, that must be rectified. It is ironic that at the very moment in history when we have our first African-American president, the plague of police brutality against blacks seems to be at an all-time high.

Many blogs and photo essays have popped up on Facebook making the point that when whites rampage, break windows, and set fire to cars, it is revelry that has gotten out of hand. When blacks do it, they are thugs and animals. When a white man guns down dozens of people in a movie theater, he is described as a brilliant student. When a black man commits even a much lesser crime, he is described as a criminal or suspected gang member.

I am not trying to excuse violent behavior. I am not saying it is right to burn buildings or loot stores. In fact, I have been disturbed by the almost unanimous public approval for a Baltimore mother shown on camera repeatedly slapping her teenaged son on the head as she dragged him away from the unrest. “Mom of the Year” she was proclaimed. Really? I wonder where her son learned that violence is the answer to problems.

Violence begets violence. When parents beat their children, their children learn to vent their anger with violence. When police officers treat black people as de facto criminals, using excessive force, threats, and intimidation on a regular basis, they are furthering a cycle of violence.

As a country, we need to deal with the endemic problems that create violence and disorder in our society. The answer is not more police or more incarceration. It is not corporal punishment to keep our children in line. The answer is to see our common humanity and to strive to make our country, arguably the greatest country in the world, a place of fairness, prosperity, and justice for all.