In my capacity as the CEO of Tanenbaum (an organization that tackles religious conflicts so that difference will be respected), the 2016 election was hard. The identity politics and lingo of hatred were the opposite of the kind of country we want to live in – from the targeting of Muslims, characterizing homeless Syrian refugees as automatic extremists, to the sudden and growing reality of swastikas in the public space, and the economic, social and racial divide within the country.
In the weeks following the election, I’ve had the chance to reflect with the people around me. It’s been a haunting journey with fear, sorrow, hope and a few hard lessons learned. With respect, I share my Five Reflections with you now.
Reflection #1 The feeling that “I’m in real danger” is palpable.
Immediately after the election, I felt a need to reach out to people I care about, just to touch base. I heard from friends who had supported the President-elect, but were upset about the hate rhetoric and worried that it might not recede. Others shared concerns – their responses left me breathless.
From my Sikh doctor friend, who is also a Major in the U.S. Army:
“I feel that the tone [during and after the election] has created animosity and division. This will be yet another crucible that Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities will endure. … The Republican Party needs to show America that it still cares about ideals such as diversity and religious freedom that have made us great. So far their silence has shown a complicit support of hateful rhetoric and has many of us wondering if America is really two very divided nations?”
From my friend, a successful professional woman, and a Muslim:
“I will never, ever, ever forget the night my babies went to sleep crying in fear. the sick feeling in my stomach got even worse with the appointment of Bannon.”
From an African-American Communications expert:
“I'm dumbfounded by the number of people who voted for Trump who didn't do so because they are themselves racists, xenophobes or misogynists, but because the racism, xenophobia and misogyny that Trump spewed didn't even register for them. Of course, being blind to it (or turning a blind eye to it) equates to tacit approval of those mindsets and that's what so shocking and frankly frightening, especially when it comes to my own mixed-race family that I feel now I must be on constant guard to protect.”
From an academic leader who is Catholic:
“I am trying to ‘lead’ as faculty staff and students struggle with how to respond, from offering sanctuary to undocumented students, to forming a ‘resistance movement.’ Sadly, there has also been some ugliness. Sigh.”
From a Christian woman who cares for other people’s children and their homes:
“What will happen to women in America?”
Reflection #2: The fears are grounded in reality.
In addition to the news of protestors, the debates on whether to acknowledge President-elect Trump as our duly elected leader, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported an uptick in hate crimes after the election (based on reports, not all of which could then be verified). This was alarming given the FBI’s 2015 report that hate crimes had escalated, with a 67% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2014 to 2015. I am terrified by how some people with racist views have gone public and now seem comfortable freely expressing their prejudice. When did anti-Semitism stop being a dirty word?
But I’m also seeing the ugliness up close, within my personal community.
From a colleague:
“My son's school had mass protests today after these messages were found yesterday: ‘F--k stupid Latino immigrants … F--k N--s … ISIS is calling, Muslims can leave … (Heart) Trump!’ He was leading the charge (yes, I'm proud of him).”
From a Union Employee Campaigning in Virginia:
“My whole life, I never felt anything about race. But when I was in Virginia knocking on doors for the election, the people would slam the doors in my face, shouting N—.”
Reflection #3: Some people are feeling paralyzed – while others are in “doing” mode, to protect an inclusive social fabric.
I personally witnessed responses from people in my community, and noted with surprise that I had moments of challenge with moving forward. I am a true believer in respectful exchanges and the power of listening to understand rather than confront. So I surprised myself when I attended a one-year old’s birthday party and met someone I had not known from the Midwest.
Though I am almost always a friendly type, I found myself uncomfortable – an unusual experience for me – wondering how to talk about the election and whether we would be able to do so. Though I opted to jump in, as per usual, it was not without trepidation. And that is new. For the record, we shared a concern about division in our country, and what we agreed is a surge in the normalization of hatemongering.
Yet, across the country, and certainly in New York, people dedicated to justice and respect for all came together. Tanenbaum was among the supporters of an important community gathering called #IAMAMERICA, spearheaded by Debbie Almontaser and our interfaith community, which believes in all of us.
Several of my friends donated to causes that protected the people and the rights that they feared will be lost. One Jewish woman, a lawyer in a major firm, sent out a November 9th email titled “This is not about politics” and encouraged her colleagues to make contributions to organizations that pursue justice.
# 4: Listening to One Another is Hard --- but Informative!
Even from those closest to me, who share my values about trying to put the Golden Rule into practice, I saw how communicating across the divide is not always easy – particularly about the last election. For me, it is important and it happened in an unexpected way.
From my plumber Tony:
I have the world’s best plumber. And when the bathroom started leaking into the dining room, he showed up and quickly, cleanly and with kindness took care of what could have been a holiday nightmare. We’ve always been friendly, and we got to talking about the election. I listened hard, and one thing was crystal clear. Tony had voted for better business opportunities.
“I learned a long time ago that there are two types of businessmen. The good guys who do a good job, charge a fair rate and have to beg to be paid so they can feed their families. And the guys to tell you like it is, what they’ll do, and get paid. President-elect Trump cares about us. He’ll fight for us.”
Tony’s not a hater, bigot or a person who stereotypes cruelly. He is a reason we must not stereotype President-elect Trump’s supporters.
Reflection #5: Amid hate crimes, top government appointments that stir anxiety among many, and the emergence of neo-Nazism (and the alt-right), there are reasons for hope.
These are days when our President-elect properly condemned bigotry and, then, during a meeting with the New York Times, said he disavowed the alt-right, white supremacy gathering held in Washington (where hate-rhetoric about Jews prevailed and gestures from the Third Reich could be seen). As a master of Twitter, however, we note that he could do so much more – like strongly condemning acts of the religious harassment, racism and prejudice, and violence.
And right after the election, I was struck by insights I would not have expected, but appreciate. I read an op-ed by Glenn Beck, who urged on all of us the importance of listening – to those you fear and disagree with. For me, hearing Mr. Beck speak of overcoming the divide, a man I used to consider only divisive himself, was a reason for hope. Equally striking was Nick Kristof’s insight that Liberals readily condemn the stereotyping of Latinos and Muslims, but have been quick to stereotype Trump voters. Honest reflection is a step on the path forward.
Establishing a just society and putting it into practice is a long-term effort. One that is always characterized by fits and starts. We have just come out of a fraught election. For those concerned with justice that honors our differences, this is a time for vigilance. Many have rational fears from the months of divisive rhetoric, recent hate crimes and the fears of more.
Yet, now is the time to take a risk and reach out to people whose religious, political, social convictions are different, and even opposite, from our own. A good place to start may be with the people closest to you – or your plumber. It is time to hone the elusive skill of listening to learn. And what better time to start than during the holiday season?