I’ve been thinking a lot this week about a conversation I had with a reader shortly after the election in November.
I had written a column about how half the country was trying to explain the election results to our children, especially those who heard the winning candidate slur their ethnic or religious group. My children, like millions of other people in this country, struggled to understand how a man who had denigrated so many people and groups had gotten elected to the highest office in the land.
I wrote that it was “OK to tell them there are still millions of sexist and racist people ... We have to be able to acknowledge and recognize the depth of our country’s racism and sexism.”
Those weren’t the only factors involved in how people voted, of course, but they played a role. I expected pushback from readers who disagreed, and some of them sent hate mail, insults and threats. But one gentleman called to have a more personal conversation. He said that he had been reading my column for years, and even though we sometimes disagreed politically, he imagined we would get along well in real life. In fact, we would probably be friends. (That’s probably true.)
That’s why he said he felt personally hurt by the column I had written, in which I seemed to say that people who voted for Trump were racist or sexist. That was not my implication, I said. As an American Muslim, I am particularly sensitive to being unfairly maligned by stereotypes and assumptions. Like you, I’m insulted by the insinuation that I have anything in common with hate-filled terrorists or extremists.
He said he didn’t care for Trump’s rhetoric, nor did he think Trump really meant all of what he said, but that he wanted to vote for someone who was not a typical politician and could bring economic progress.
I understood that. In my desire to tend to his hurt feelings and also to get back to my work, I chose not to say something I now wish I had. I wish I’d said that I could never have voted for a person who made the sorts of remarks we heard from Trump -- even if I thought “he didn’t really mean it.” There were many people in the past election who were not racist, but who were willing to overlook ugly and hateful rhetoric because it didn’t affect them personally or because they didn’t take it seriously.
You know who didn’t overlook that rhetoric? Straight-up hate groups. They heard it loud and clear and took it as a call to arms, which many of us who he demonized feared would happen. We saw it on horrific display when hundreds of torch-bearing neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, and a counter-protester was killed crossing the street by a man plowing his car through the crowd.
In Trump’s latest remarks about the racist rally and violence in Virginia, the president went back to his original statement -- blaming “many sides,” and stating that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Confederate-statue protests. The fact is, only one side has been marching with Nazi paraphernalia.
In response to Trump’s comments, former KKK leader David Duke tweeted, “Thank you to President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville ...” He said the rally there was to “fulfill the promise of Donald Trump.”
I’ve been thinking about what I would say to that same caller today:
I’m sorry, sir, that your feelings were hurt by my stating the fact that this recent election has energized, emboldened and empowered bigots and racists.
But I am far sorrier about the murders of Heather Heyer in Virginia, of Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche in Portland, of Richard Collins III in Maryland and Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas -- killed by those spewing hatred.
I have read the surging reports of mosques being vandalized at the rate of two per week, the reports of swastikas in schools and racist taunts used by bullies. The fact that our president cannot distinguish between racist violence and those protesting Nazis should make us sick.
But I take heart in how our conversation ended. You told me that you were going to wait and see how the newly elected president acted in office. So, how has he done? He has cut funding for groups that fight white supremacists, killing the Countering Violent Extremism funds for those groups that work to stop violent extremism and recruitment efforts for far-right groups. You heard him in his own words in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy.
You and I live in the Show-Me State.
Have you seen enough yet?