This is the third in a series of articles that I started in April. I’m not sure how many more articles in this series I will write. Some parts of these stories are not only my stories. They are sensitive and personal to other family members.
In Part 1, I alluded to reasons why people who aren’t white supremacists or even overtly racist could be motivated by Donald Trump’s rhetoric about building walls, keeping Muslims out of the country and putting Muslim communities under surveillance to support him. In this article, I will explore some of those reasons with some familial examples.
But first, I will say that there are many racists in the part of Florida where my family lives. There are racists in my extended family. I don’t think you could grow up white in post-Reconstruction Alabama and not absorb the miasma of resentment and sense of stolen pride, stolen class, and stolen means for self-betterment that had been passed down for generations in the White South. But, these are the struggles of a generation that is not mine, and not all families passed resentment down from generation to generation ad infinitum. For Southern whites, there was a great playing field leveler that came into existence after World War II. A new road to success via joining the professional class was opened by the GI Bill for my dad and his brothers, and for their peers. The road was a wide thoroughfare before crippling student debt opened up gaping potholes. I’ll stop belaboring the metaphor, but a college education is too often now a road to indentured servitude. By contrast to my father’s family, on my mother’s side, several family members were left behind, literally and figuratively, while others went to college after serving in the military and then moved out of the South.
My father took the middle road. He went to university on the GI Bill, but he didn’t leave the South. With a masters degree in Mathematics, he launched into the professional class via jobs with consulting firms and contractors for NASA. He started his career at a small engineering firm in Huntsville, Alabama, working at Redstone Arsenal, and from there moved on to Lockheed. A few years later, he shifted from the Space Program to the Department of Defense.
Politically, Huntsville was one of many small drops of blue in the sea of red that is the traditional South. After Huntsville, we occasionally lived in a few other drops of blue in Louisiana and Florida before settling in a staunch Red county during my final year of high school. I didn’t grasp how profound the differences were until I was older, but we often lived in communities that were more liberal than my immediate family due to my dad’s career. And my immediate family was more liberal than our relatives. Visits to relatives sometimes resembled time travel. I gravitated toward the most liberal ideologies to which I was exposed, but I assumed that I was only a little more liberal than my parents. The trajectories were established, though, and over time my political and cultural views trended more and more liberal and those of my parents became more conservative. Or perhaps that is an illusion, and they were always as conservative as now, and it’s my perspective that changed.
My parents were (and my mother still is) highly risk-averse. For example, after 9/11 they decided never to travel by air again. They distrusted credit cards and preferred to send physical checks by mail to using electronic funds transfers. They hated having strangers in the house. Repairmen, neighbors, their children’s friends, all made them worry about theft and other crime. Repairmen, building contractors, roofers, etc., in the neighborhood working on other peoples’ homes and yards also made them worry about crime.
For my dad, the dislike of strangers in his home was partly driven by strong introversion and social anxiety. He also avoided social situations outside the home. For my mother, the same tendencies are driven by paranoia. The saying, “never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence” is turned on its head for her.
Risk aversion and paranoia are rounded out by an authoritarian mindset. By this, I don’t mean that my conservative family members are authoritarians in the bully with a big stick sense. They are susceptible to the lure of the powerful “we”. They respect people in authority who talk tough and sound like they will protect “us”. They see threats everywhere, and they want leaders who talk about the same threats they see — who talk about destroying or neutralizing those threats.
They are drawn to political leaders who talk about deporting immigrants and getting tough in the middle east not because they hate immigrants and Muslims, but because they fear them. The threats of terrorism, of crime, and of lost jobs are blown entirely out of proportion and protecting “us” is paramount. If it comes with collateral damage to “others”, that’s unfortunate but if they weren’t terrorists we wouldn’t have to do these unfortunate things.
Add to these perceived foreign threats the growing wave of protest against systemic racism in law enforcement after the deaths of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and so many others. It’s another threat, one more “other” to fear. I have never heard my mother say the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s name. I think this is because to say it would require her to at least consider if her fears could possibly be about race and not about social unrest. So, she talks in a hushed tone about “unrest” and “disrespect” and “murders of police officers”. When a police officer dies in California, she calls me to express sadness and sympathy for his death, as though I would personally mourn him and be frightened by the threat of racial violence and an uprising against authority and the very fabric of society. She sees calls for social justice as “unrest” and dangerous. That danger overrides concerns, if there are any, for people of color who are dying in the hands of law enforcement.
I hear in my family’s hushed and serious conversations some of the racist dog whistles that are so common in conservative political speeches and on Fox News. It made me sick to think that my family hated African-Americans and immigrants and Muslims. It was a relief in some ways to finally see the pattern of paranoia and fear in their political stances that I see in so many other aspects of their lives. Recognizing that they fear rather than hate is one step along a path that could lead to better outcomes in conversing with some Trump supporters. And if not successful with one generation, then recognizing that the next generation could be infected with the same fears means that the conversation we need to have is about safety (and the fact that we as a nation and as individuals are actually quite safe) more than about racism and hatred.
Fearing the “other” is no less dangerous than hating the “other”, especially if in your fear you give power to bullies. Fearing the “other” can lead to monstrous acts and to empowering monstrous politicians and creating monstrous governments. The fact that the acts are driven by fear rather than hatred don’t change or excuse the outcomes. But, it’s possible…maybe…I hope, that fear can be overcome more easily than hatred. If not in my family, then maybe in others’ families.
Some of our fellow citizens are headed down the wrong fork in our national road in this year of the 2016 election for reasons that don’t map to racism and hatred. When the year is over, I think I’ll be able to see them as good-intentioned but wrongheaded. It would be easy to see them as monsters.
This article may be of interest if you are trying to reconcile similar contradictions in the ideologies of your families and friends: The rise of American Authoritarianism.