September 22, 2020
It’s sort of pointless to argue whether or not Donald Trump is a racist. His lifetime record of words and deeds proves it. Saturday night he rambled on about how is white crowd in Minnesota had “good genes.” He can pimp out Herschel Walker (who has had his fair share of blows to the head), or suddenly throw $13 billion at Puerto Rico, but 99% of black and brown people know what’s up. The Trump loyalists who don’t think he’s a racist are not going to be convinced by me that he is. Anyone with an a IQ over 80 and a minimal understanding of twentieth century history understands what’s happening in America right now.
And we don’t have to go all the way back to Germany in the 1930s to see the populist swing to authoritarianism returning. Trump is straight up Nixon ’68, revisiting the racist “southern strategy” as he madly tweets at “suburban housewives” that black people (and Antifa!) are coming to destroy their bucolic worlds. The fear mongering worked for Nixon as race riots gripped American cityscapes. Things are different in 2020. The suburbs are different and most of those “housewives” are the primary breadwinners in their families. I doubt Mr. “Grab ‘em by the pussy” and his racist drumbeating is going to frighten them more than COVID-19 killing their children.
So then what to do? How do we deprive this racist lover of dictators of his oxygen? How do we kill the threat of Donald Trump to America?
It will be our veterans that show us the way
The absolute key to this racial mess is understanding the nature of trauma. Liberals and conservatives, antifascists and “patriots” all have a basic understanding of trauma. So here’s how it works.
Step One: Veterans – When was the last time we heard of someone coming back from a war zone and being spit on? We don’t do that anymore. Even hard core anti-war left wingers would never even think of doing that. My father used to joke about torturing a “shell shocked” Korean War vet who was his high school teachers in the 1950s. In the 1970s, tweaked Vietnam vets were the subject of derision. “Dude’s in his own private ‘Nam.” What changed?
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a very real and life-lasting cognitive condition. Because of the suffering and sacrifice of a lot of vets, we understand how acute trauma, like getting shot at, alters the brain. And we learned that trauma can lie dormant and be triggered by something random, like fireworks going off on the 4th of July. In 1998, I went to a special screening of Saving Private Ryan that honored surviving WWII vets. The opening scenes of the Normandy landing had men in their seventies convulsing like they were back on that beach 54 years prior. They nearly had to stop the film.
We’ve learned that PTSD has a whole host of ripple effects, like depression, substance abuse, and elevated suicide rates. That’s why there is near consensus on helping our vets heal instead of adding to their trauma.
Step Two: Rape victims – Rape is epidemic in our society. Depending on the measure, as many as one and four women in this country will be sexually assaulted at least once. Rape knows no political boundaries, no race or even age. We exist in a rape culture which traumatizes women with sexual violence and the looming threat of sexual violence. Even typing the word rape will traumatize some of the women reading this. I was lecturing about rape statistics in my criminology class at the University of Oregon and a young woman burst into tears and left the class, never to return. I re-traumatized her without even trying. It’s the impact not the intent.
We also have a mountain of research that shows rape victims suffer from PTSD just like our veterans do. The difference is women don’t walk off the battlefield. America is the battlefield, with the next potential attack just around the corner, or, more likely, in the next room. And having entertainment, like Game of Thrones, that turns rape into spectacle and a president who brags about his sexual assaults doesn’t help.
Even the most right-wing asshole dude has a mother or a sister or a daughter or a favorite teacher or a lover who has been wounded by sexual violence. Just like he would never tell an Afghan war vet to “just get over it,” it would be hard to imagine he would tell his wounded rape victim to “just get over it.” Even assholes have hearts.
Step Three: People of Color – I know there are white people who think racism magically ended in 1865, or 1964, or 2008 when Obama was elected. But anyone who has watched the 8 minute and 46 second execution of George Floyd knows that the trauma of racism continues and is a daily reality for people of color. Seeing grown black men, weeping on live TV, begging for black lives to matter was a wake up call for many white people.
Think of the cumulative trauma that results from slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, mass incarceration during the phony “War on Drugs,” redlining, educational discrimination, white flight, police violence, and on and on. Where is the opportunity to heal when the traumatizing impacts of racism are still coming, while white people chant, “just get over it”?
Black, brown, Asian, and indigenous people are marginalized in ways that are often completely invisible to white people. It could be a simple micro-aggression (“So, what are you?”) or a lack of representation (How many black male teachers have you had?). The rising rate of hate crimes based on race is the icing and Trump’s attacks on black athletes as “sons of bitches” are the cherries on top.
If we can understand the trauma of veterans and rape victims, why can’t we understand the trauma of racism victims? As a dude on American Ninja Warriors recently said, “Ignoring race doesn’t fix racism.”
An embarrassing story about myself
Two years ago I was taking my daughter, Cozy, to her preschool. I got there early and saw a young African-American male sitting on the steps to the school. His hood was up and he was on his phone. Something ticked in my head, that said, “Danger Will Robinson!” so I took Cozy in a different door, giving the young man a wide berth.
When I came back out, I saw him getting on a school bus, doing what we want every teenager should to be doing. The preschool steps were his bus stop. I felt incredibly embarrassed about my assumption and as he got on the bus, he shot me a look that I will never forget. It said, “What do I have to do? I’m going to school and you still think I’m a thug.” I had wounded him and his day was just starting.
What happened? I grew up in racist America which means I internalized white supremacy, including the belief that black men are threats to our safety. That internalized white supremacy turned into implicit bias, that gut feeling that had me choose to walk in a different door. That young man experienced that as a micro-aggression, he knew I was walking in the far door because he was black. And that micro-aggression was a small but meaningful traumatizing event. Instead of helping him to heal, I gave him YET ANOTHER reminder that being black in America is to be marginalized. I wounded him. And I’m sure there were plenty more woundings that followed that day.
Our president thinks discussing concepts like internalized white supremacy, implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and racial trauma are anti-American. He’s come out hard against the New York Times 1619 Project that tries to undo the whitewashing we’ve done on the history and impact of slavery on America. He wants to institute some Orwellian “patriotic education” curriculum to indoctrinate kids back into the white washing. (School curriculums are mandated on the state level, so he’s just playing to his racist base, again.) I’m waiting for Trump to sign an executive order replacing Black History Month with Slave Owners Had Good Genes Month.
If “All lives matter,” then black lives matter. That’s how words work.
The road out of this backsliding moment is to talk to white people about trauma and healing. If they can understand the experience of veterans and rape victims with PTSD, they can understand the traumatizing impacts of racism and marginalization. If it makes sense that a wounded warrior might be triggered by firecrackers or a rape victim might be re-traumatized by another news report of a sexual assault, than a white person should be able to understand the cumulative impact of another unarmed black person who was killed by the police on black people in general. In 2020, it seems like black lives just don’t matter yet.
Except for sociopaths (and I understand the ranks of neo-Nazis and “Pro-Trump” activists have plenty of those folks), all human beings are capable of empathy. I’ve written about how my road from white supremacist kid from a Klan town to anti-racist educator started with the recognition of how I traumatized a black janitor in my freshman dorm at Oxford College by ripping up a book by Martin Luther King, Jr. and throwing it in the toilet. Good people don’t want to cause trauma. Good people want to help people to heal from their wounds.
The problem is that white people are so damn fragile. They run away from the term “racist,” thinking it only applies to cross-burning Klansmen. We’ve all internalized white supremacy, full stop. Myself included. The switch has to flick from, “I’m not a racist!” to, “I am racist but I want to reduce the harm that’s caused. How can I help the healing?” I think when white people understand the depth and length of racial trauma, they will want to be helpers instead of hurters. Take down your Confederate flag and unclench your white fist into an open hand.
Donald Trump has cast himself as the savior of white America. It might work. There are are still a lot of anxious white people that can’t handle a black football player who cares about justice, let alone people taking to streets, demanding to dismantle racist institutions. Trump’s racism has been unleashed in his desperate eleventh hour attempt to salvage the train wreck of his presidency. Perhaps calm conversations about the wounding racism has caused to people we care about can end his reign of injury.