Trumping Up Racism

 

I once decided to shave my head. It is a normal look in Los Angeles — a 1” all around with a 0 used to draw defining lines. I must admit, I feel a certain sense of Latino pride when I sport this haircut.

My timing, however, might not have been the best. At the time, I was working at a Catholic office in St. Louis for my ministry work as a Jesuit. St. Louis, the city where racism and segregation are alive and well (think Ferguson). Perhaps you can guess where this story is going…

The day I entered the office with my newly shaved head, a new secretary was at the front desk. She was an older lady with blond hair and a fitted black suit. I approached her to introduce myself and to ask for my office keys. She had a faint nervous smile on her face as I approached the desk. Before I could say anything, she asked:

“Oh, are you here for help with legal troubles? Just down this hall.” Her finger pointed me toward the Office of Legal and Immigration Services.

I stood in disbelief.

“No, I work here and I need the keys to my office.” I had lost my composure by this point.

“I’m so sorry, sir.” She scrambled to find the keys.

* * *

Racism, prejudice and discrimination are real issues. For non-white Americans, they are a constant reality. In my own experiences, I have never been able to escape them.

Who better to illustrate this truth than our very own, all-American Donald Trump. I trust you have heard of him, but if not, I’ll catch you up: he’s running for president and he holds some interesting views about Mexicans and immigration. Can you believe he called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug-dealers? Can you believe that he wants to revoke my birthright citizenship? Can you believe that he waxes nostalgic about a 1950’s plan to deport Mexican immigrants?  Could you ever imagine that someone so racist could be running for president?

My answer to all these questions: Yes. Yes I can.

I am not shocked. I didn’t even flinch when I heard his thoughts on Mexicans for the first time. Sadly, I only thought, “of course someone with such privilege would claim that my immigrant people are the downfall of American society.“

Why do I say “of course”? Because these are the words and insults that my family and I have had to endure our whole lives. My dad has been mocked for his broken English by Section 8 housing authorities. My mom has been berated and abused by deportation police officers. My brother and sister had to live in anxious fear as kids, wondering whether our deported mom would be allowed to reenter the US. I admit to fearing white police officers ever since they stormed into my family’s apartment, shoving me onto a chair and yelling as they raided our home without a warrant. 

I’ve numbed myself to the prejudices I’ve faced simply for speaking Spanish or for revealing my real accent. I’ve numbed myself to experiences of being taken for a troublemaking illegal immigrant by a new secretary at work, when all I was doing was looking for my office keys.

So of course I’m not shocked that Donald Trump has risen to the top. Worse, he isn’t the only presidential candidate (and American) to hold racist views about Latinos and immigration.

No, I’m not shocked. But I’m not going to sit quietly by, either.

Even though Mr. Trump et al. voice their distaste from their high political platform, they are easily countered and defeated by Latinos themselves. We aren’t afraid of them. Latina actress Selma Hayak points out how Trump’s comments were illustrative of a larger problem:

Or here, where Vicente Fox (the Jesuit-educated former president of Mexico) offers some constructive advice to Mr. Trump:

The arguments from Latinos against Donald Trump are real and simple: we are more than a list of fear-mongering, ignorant prejudices. We are lawyers, doctors, writers, musicians, artists, engineers, hard-workers, dreamers, etc.

The Society of Jesus in the United States is a good example of this.  First, second, and third generation Latinos feel called to serve as Catholic priests and brothers. These Jesuits serve as social workers, teachers, doctors, artists, spiritual directors, musicians, and pastors. I am proud to say that I am one of them. And need I remind Mr. Trump, we have a Latino Jesuit as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church?

Still, I’m not shocked that Donald Trump, or anyone, would argue otherwise and that America would listen. Racism against Latinos is alive and well—and we are only one of a dozen groups discriminated against in the US.

You may still be asking: you aren’t surprised that he is so popular?…not even a little? The answer reveals a truth that many Americans may refuse to accept:

Race is real.

But perhaps not in the way you may be thinking.

By race, I don’t mean biological difference.  By ‘race’ I mean the socially constructed labels and ideas placed on groups of people. These labels exist and have real-life consequences on the people they claim to describe. The ideas of racial categories come from our natural tendency to see differences.  Yes, of course color and physical traits differ.  Cultures are many, and languages vary. We are a diverse creation, and that fact should lead us to marvel and wonder at the variety within creation.  Instead, ‘race’ becomes a tool for creating racial hierarchies and marking divisions. A brief survey of American history reveals that these issues are embedded deeply in American culture — especially when it comes to issues of immigration. Chicago Immigration Protest May 1, 2006

And so yes: ‘race’ is real. For non-whites, this truth will never be argued or denied. My professor of Philosophy of Race, Dr. Colleen McCluskey, once pointed out — and my entire class agreed — that only white Americans claim, “I don’t see race” or, “there is only one human race.”  These are optimistic, indeed hopeful views, but they are entirely false. ‘Race’ is real because racism needs such divisions to feed on. There are many ‘races’ and the human race is thus divided.

To those who claim not to see race, might I suggest taking a second look. Race has currency, a currency that divides and pays dividends of white privilege. This isn’t an unsavory opinion — it’s a fact that people who benefit from such privilege need to acknowledge.  Only then can they come to accept the reality of social oppression and the role that they play in constructing and maintaining systemic racism. By becoming aware of their privilege, Americans of good will can help break down and change these unjust systems. Instead of drawing lines and mongering fear, we should all be celebrating our differences and honoring our heritages. But it starts with acknowledging that racism is real, and it has consequences in the lives of real people.

* * *

Of course we’ve heard of Donald Trump. His is the racist voice my family and friends have known for too long.  As a nation we have heard that voice speaking in the back of our minds, but many are reluctant to admit it.  It’s the voice that divides and conquers our society, even though so many well-intentioned Americans have “rejected ‘race,’” while still enjoying the fruits of privilege.  This voice has been whispering in the back of the American conscious for a long time.  Only this time that voice has come to life, and a lot of people are listening.

* * *

Back in St. Louis, the shaken secretary hands me my office keys. “Thanks,” I say through a forced smile, “If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”   

And so does our country.

–//–

Title image of Donald Trump by Scott Olson (Getty Images) is available here.

“Chicago Immigration Protest” by FLickr user jvoves is available here.

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