Posted in musings, quotes

the social underpinnings of racism: Trump and the 1950s

In the wake of Trump’s ascension to the presidency, a lot of people like me were left wondering how so many Americans could be so angry and feel so wronged that they were willing to tolerate blatant racism and misogyny in their leadership. There’s been a lot of confusion and a lot of anger, and not a lot of dialogue; each side tries to defend its beliefs by reciting wrongs against itself, or attempts to seize the moral high ground and demonize its opponents instead of listening to their grievances. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had to severely limit my social media time…

But as I was reading The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Doss, written before the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in the aftermath of the Japanese internment camps of WWII, I came across a passage that seemed quite relevant today:

First, prejudice is a contagious disease, as easily caught as measles, the babe from his parents, the school child from his playmates, the adult from his fellow workers and neighbors. To compound the social tragedy, prejudice once caught is hard to cure, since it unwittingly serves a number of morbid purposes. When a man is picked on by his boss, he can slam home and take it out on his family, and frequently does; however, a more socially approved outlet is to turn around and release the feelings of hate and anger on those of a minority racial group. If denied certain yearned-for opportunities and privileges, there is a devilish quirk within man which gives him perverse satisfaction in seeing that at least one segment of the population enjoys even less opportunities and privileges than he.

If a person feels socially or mentally inferior, has a persecuted feeling that society is crushing down on him, it is easy to bolster waning self-confidence by convincing himself, “At least there are whole groups of people socially, mentally, economically inferior to me.” Worse yet, he will try to keep minority groups in a deprived and subjugated position, to prove what his ego wants to believe.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have long told us that bottled-up feelings of aggression and anger can be dynamite to the happiness and well-being of the individual who refuses to recognize real causes behind his maladjustments. Multiply these fearful and emotionally tense individuals by thousands, by even millions, and you have social dynamite… Hostility will be exploded in any area where society permits it…

War has always been a socially glorified outlet for pent-up angers and frustrations of whole peoples. In America, our Negroes have provided another scapegoat, and so we have had race riots, Jim Crowism, and the Ku Klux Klan. On the West Coast first the Chinese, then the Japanese, provided another handy outlet for our inner tensions, and we have had discrimination in jobs and housing, an Orientals Exclusion Act, and the “relocation centers” of World War II.

The anger and other negative emotion of the dissatisfied people who voted for Trump is real. Many people felt disenfranchised, ignored, stuck in a world they didn’t ask for, unable to change their fate, feeling like their communities and families were broken. And Trump acknowledged those emotions when most other politicians were oblivious to them. Would these people on their own have decided to take out their anger on immigrants, women, and other minorities? I’m not sure; in many cases, I don’t think so. I know a lot of good people, who care deeply about human dignity and equality, who voted for Trump for one reason or another, trying to look past his faults. But Trump himself has most definitely established those groups as “acceptable” targets for the pent-up anger of anyone who feels ignored, overlooked, or under-appreciated; he has made them the scapegoat of the failures and frustrations of the majority.

Like it or not, whether you as an individual are racist or not, Trump has bolstered the cause of racism by making it more socially acceptable once again; he has directed the force of social anger towards some of the most vulnerable and unrepresented groups of all; he has given hostility a safe place to explode, and so set our country back in its fight against racism and for the equality of all. Racism is in so many ways a systemic issue, not an individual issue; that is why the attitude of the president is so powerful and influential. That is why it matters so much, especially now, to speak up against racism, to push social pressure against it as much as possible.

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