It’s almost time for the frogs in the wetlands beside our house to awaken from their winter lethargy and announce their presence. Our time to awaken has come, too.
As much as I hate publicly calling someone racist, the time has come. President Trump is racist in thought, word and deed. He is not the first such occupant of the White House. Eight Presidents owned slaves while in office. Woodrow Wilson screened the KKK movie, Birth of a Nation in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt turned away a ship of 900 Jews fleeing Europe because he didn’t want more Jews in the U.S.* Richard Nixon used his racist Southern Strategy to become President and Ronald Reagan trumpeted the Welfare Queen. Until 1965, our immigration policies were written to exclude nearly all immigrants from everywhere but Northern and Western Europe. Some, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, were particularly heinous.
Scratch below the surface and America’s systemic racism is still visible. That has become abundantly clear in the past two years. Those racist currents have again become dangerous as President Trump fans the flames of nationalism, White Supremacy and Christian exceptionalism.
Why do I say President Trump is racist and in thought, word and deed? He proudly denigrates people of color and Muslims. His vile comments encourage xenophobia, greed and hate. His words give succor to those who burn mosques, deface synagogues, and destroy black churches. His policies against Latinos and Muslim majority countries are break families apart and terrorize U.S. residents. His comments and actions are considered so derogatory and racist around the world that they endanger our diplomats and military personnel.
Some White folk say the President ought to be free to speak the way they, themselves, do at home and in pubs, as if their racism is O.K. and his ought to be, as well. But when President Trump uses vile language to speak of Africa, Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras, or racist language about people here at home, there is much more at stake. His words carry the full power of the United States, for good or ill.
This is not a game. It is not innocent. It is not harmless. It is life and death. It is nothing less than the future of our country and the world at stake.
Like the frogs beyond my garden, it’s time for us to raise our voices and start moving. Citizens have moved this nation towards its ideals in the past. We can do it again. We must do it again.
Two citizen movements in U.S. history inspire and prod me to action: “citizen spies” in Los Angeles and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ’60’s.
As the KKK and neo-Nazi groups grew in power across the U.S. in the 1930’s, a handful of citizens in Los Angeles thwarted White supremacists’ plans to torch Boyle Heights and its residents with flame throwers mounted on pickup trucks. They also disrupted plans to murder Jewish movie stars and businessmen, and to seize armories across the Los Angeles Basin. With courage and determination, they acted on their values.
I draw strength, too, from the young Blacks of the Civil Rights Movement who sat in White sections of lunch counters in the South; Black and White Freedom Riders who were beaten and jailed as they registered Blacks to vote; and Black citizens who risked their lives standing up for one another and trying to claim their right to work, love, worship, vote and travel unhindered. With bravery and determination, they acted on their belief in the ideals of America.
Most of the people who have bent the arc of America’s history towards justice were ordinary people like you and I. They gave time and energy, skills and expertise, compassion, hospitality and life experience–sometimes even their jobs, homes, and life.
Now it’s our time and turn: Our time to be courageous and creative. Our turn to reclaim America from those who tarnish it anew with racism, injustice and greed.
If you’re looking for ideas, here are a few to choose from. Voice your concerns and beliefs to family, friends, coworkers and members of your church/synagogue/mosque. Challenge their comments and jokes. Join Daily Action Text Alerts to participate in coordinated phone calls to Congress. Contribute money to the NAACP, ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center. Volunteer with groups that protect immigrants. Pray. March. Run for office. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Learn about White Privilege, systemic racism and how change occurs. Listen humbly to the experiences of people whose race is different from yours and learn. Look in the mirror with honesty, and change. Be creative and courageous.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
*At least one quarter of the Jews on the German ocean liner, St. Louis, died in the Holocaust after returning to Europe from the Port of Miami.
**The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 removed limitations of previous policies and, with a more generous quota system, instead based immigration on merit and family connections.
***“Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America,” by Steven J. Ross, Professor of History at USC.