I Don’t Fear White Supremacists, I Fear Liberal Indifference

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Early in my student-teaching, I had a theory. When students behaved poorly, I ignored them, hoping they'd realize the folly of their ways and modify their behavior. If you've taught for more than a week, you know how this worked out. Lesson learned: if someone lets a homophobic, racist, anti-trans, etc. slur rip in class, your immediate response communicates your values and expectations. Your first response to someone saying “that’s so gay” will dictate whether there’s ever a second time.

It’s no different in everyday life.

American liberals are currently engaging in the same faulty reasoning regarding white-supremacist and neo-confederate activity. Throughout the post-civil rights era, white supremacists lingered on the fringes of the political right. However, through YouTube self-radicalization, internet communities like StormFront, and the wink-wink nature of the president’s response to their support of him, they’re moving from the fringes toward the mainstream of the American right:

The “if it triggers the libs, then it’s good with me” ethos that Trumpsim has brought to the American right has brought white-nationalists figures out of the shadows. They’re leveraging our political tribalism to gain a foothold in conservative media and online spaces.

Meanwhile, the preferred liberal approach “the best way to fight white supremacists is to ignore them” has proved ineffective. This is certainly the easiest path for (seemingly) unaffected white liberals but is also incredibly dangerous for my students and our democracy. When you ignore white supremacists, they “hear” your silence as indifference--if not a tacit endorsement. We saw this with David Duke’s near-orgasmic comments after the president failed fully to condemn the events in Charlottesville.  

The danger is real and I’m convinced the liberal weapons of choice: satire and longform essays, are insufficient to combat the 15-24 year old, YouTube self-radicalized, alt-right/Nazi horde about to break into the political mainstream. We need a new playbook and it has to include white liberals taking a risk and confronting white supremacists.

I recently saw this unfold in my own community. In February, a local group of activists identified a group of Neo-Nazis living and operating a tattoo parlor in East Tacoma. Dozens of people shared the piece on social media, but the collective response was muted. The Nazis in question felt no pushback once their presence became public knowledge, so in the spring they began flying a Confederate, German flag, and a Viking Raven flag in the neighborhood. Members of the community began putting pressure on them: letters, phone calls, several “this is not okay in our community” in-person conversations, and the Neo-Nazis wrapped themselves in "patriotism" instead, replacing those flags with US flags and bunting.

This may seem trivial, but the lesson is clear: ignoring them was a signal that their conduct was acceptable. So they escalated. But, the community collectively saying “we will not tolerate this behavior” provoked a change.

Ignoring white supremacists is a tacit endorsement of their ideas and presence. Collective condemnation and confrontation send them scurrying. Bigotry and courage usually don’t coexist. Dear reader (especially teachers), it may go against your non-confrontational nature but it’s a must. Look, I have tough skin. Up until Twitter made such activity an account revoking offense, I got called a "nigger" online basically weekly for my various posts. Y'all, it shouldn’t be left to people of color to police white supremacists. Neo-Nazis may not seem like a threat to you, but they are a threat to your students, their families, and our communities.

Their plan is simple. They seek to normalize their presence and then their activities and beliefs. Ignoring them grants an air of legitimacy.

We mustn't allow that. We can’t.

Our Rightward March into Oblivion on Guns

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I’m a gun owner. I bought my first gun in 2011, when I became a homeowner, after reading about one-too-many black folks being mistaken for burglars and killed by police in their own homes. I own a 12-gauge shotgun and a .40 S&W carbine. I enjoy going to the range and going away for my semi-annual dude trip, where we go trap and target shooting. Obviously, I’m not a gun abolitionist, but I think our current gun policy conversation borders on the preposterous.

NRA Spokesman Wayne LaPierre’s “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” might be the dumbest piece of propagandistic claptrappery to penetrate common parlance in my lifetime and is one of the clearest indicators of the drift into absurdity of the US gun debate.  

Like most Americans, I’ve watched in horror, the recent spate of mass shootings. Pulse Nightclub in Orlando: 49 dead, 58 wounded; the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas: 58 dead, 851(!) injured; Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida: 17 dead, 14 of them children. Sadly and predictably, there will be more.    

This is a uniquely American problem. We are an outlier. We choose to let this happen.

A contributing factor to our current situation is the insular nature of American politics. Too few Americans travel abroad, consume international news, or have friends who live abroad. We don’t understand how preposterous and atypical our levels of gun violence are. We are literally the only developed nation where people are murdered with regularity using weapons of war. We are literally the only developed nation where the open carrying of guns is viewed as acceptable behavior. We are literally the only developed country in the world where the idea of arming teachers is being treated as a serious policy proposal (it isn't).  

One of my colleagues, Ms. Bockus, does a lesson in her AP Language class about the syntax of the Second Amendment (quoted in full for those unfamiliar): “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It is a complex sentence: several subordinate clauses and one independent. Certain folks in the gun debate focus on the “shall not be infringed” clause, while conveniently disregarding the “well regulated” portion of the Amendment. But, under any reasonable reading of the entire amendment it is clear: Americans have a right to bear arms and the government has the right to put reasonable limits on said right.  

But, reasonable policies that were passed on a bipartisan basis a generation ago are somehow considered radioactive in our modern politics:

  • In 1967, under the leadership of Governor Ronald Reagan, California passed the Mulford Act, banning open carrying of firearms in the state
  • In 1994, in a bipartisan vote, Congress banned the sale of new assault weapons. This ten year ban was allowed to sunset by Congressional Republicans in 2004
  • In 1999, following the shooting in Columbine, Wayne LaPierre came out in support of gun free zones in schools stating, "We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America’s schools. Period."

Our current gun policy debate, with the president proposing the arming of teachers, is a fundamental departure from common sense and historical trends and precedents. This is a recipe for more mass shootings. More extensive background checks, red flag laws, magazine capacity limits, and an assault weapons ban (grandfathering-in existing weapons) are examples of sensible policies that can save lives and make more sense than arming teachers.

We need to learn lessons from abroad and locales with lower rates of gun violence. We need our politicians to show courage in the face of the gun lobby. We need reasonable gun owners to speak out for sensible policy.  None of this is Earth-shattering, but it requires putting aside pride and getting out our political bubbles. The mass shootings are becoming more lethal; five of the ten most deadly US mass shootings have occurred since 2015. Our children deserve better than to inherit a broke, hyper-violent, dystopian Wild West. We can do better.

NRA Spokesman Wayne LaPierre’s “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” might be the dumbest piece of propagandistic claptrappery to penetrate common parlance in my lifetime and is one of the clearest indicators of the drift into absurdity of the US gun debate.  

Our National Amnesia: Remember, Immigrants Make America Great

 NYC in the distance from Alaska Air Flight 11 on Wednesday, January 24

NYC in the distance from Alaska Air Flight 11 on Wednesday, January 24

Earlier this week, I spent a few days in New York City at Inman Connect. On the way into the city when I caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, I commented in my broken Spanish to my Lyft driver: she’s still there, she’s still beautiful.

For me, this trip was a timely reminder of our history. Unless you are a Native American (they were here first), an African-American descended from chattel slavery (we were brought here in chains), or a Mexican-American from one of the areas “ceded” in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them) you are likely either an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

In 2016, during the GOP primary, the $20,000,000,000 wall that candidate Trump wanted to build along our southern border was a punchline that other candidates rightfully derided. Now, mainstream GOP figures have gone from mocking the Wall to embracing it. It is now the centerpiece of the immigration plan being proposed by the congressional majority. The capitulation on the Wall, first by Republicans, and now by Senate Democrats is an indicator of what ails us.  

If you are white or believe yourself to be white, your family’s story likely goes something like the plot of Sergio Leone's 1984 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America: They arrived from the working class neighborhoods or farms surrounding Sicily, Dublin, Stuttgart, Krakow, Sarajevo, or East London. Many of them were not considered white in their lifetimes--they were called Wops, Polacks, Jews, Krauts, Olafs, Squareheads, and Micks. They arrived broke as hell. They arrived not speaking English. They moved into neighborhoods full of other immigrants and shopped at ethnic markets. They found work, backbreaking manual labor--farm work, construction, working in sweltering hot kitchens, driving taxis for 60+ hours a week. They lived in crappy apartments or small rural houses. They met someone and settled down. They put their children in school and taught them the value of hardwork. Their children spoke English at school and their native language at home. They sent long letters home in pidgin English singing the praises of America and the opportunities here. More recent immigrants sent home remittances via Western Union. Soon others from their villages, towns, and neighborhoods followed the paths they tread to America. They learned English over time, but spoke with a heavy accent until their death.

This is the American story. Immigrants to the US have always come from what some might call "shithole countries" and "shithole neighborhoods". But, they came with dreams. They worked, saved, bought homes, and helped bring other family members here. This is the “chain migration” our national leaders refer to with such derision. Chain migration is simply a means of family reunification.

 I have shirt that says “Immigrants Make America Great.” I don’t wear it to make a political point. I wear it because I know our nation’s history.

I have shirt that says “Immigrants Make America Great.” I don’t wear it to make a political point. I wear it because I know our nation’s history.

A call to my conservative readers and friends: Over seventy-percent of Americans support protections for Dreamers. Reasonable people can disagree about policy: should DACA recipients be eligible for citizenship or just permanent residency? Should we have a diversity lottery or move to a points based system like Canada? Those are points up for debate. But, we can’t allow American nativists to dominate the national immigration conversation with their ahistorical tales and white-nationalist tirades. We can’t normalize the Breitbarts and Stephen Millers, nor their monochromatic, ethno-nationalist lexicons and worldviews.

Watching our national conversation about immigration, I feel like we’re losing a part of our collective humanity. Watching Christians whom I’ve known for decades turn into belligerent nativists is breathtaking. Seeing folks who claim to support family values, prattle on in dehumanizing language about “anchor babies” or “the illegals” shows how lost we truly are. The Dreamers I teach have committed no crime and are as American as my US-born students. My immigrant students from Africa give their all in the classroom and then work after school to support their families. My Salvadoran grads work hard and then set up side hustles selling pupusas out of their homes to make tuition. They are all as integral to the American tapestry as you or I.