The Election And "The Other"

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, I struggled with how to address my school community. As Dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, I am part of a school that cares deeply about the social, economic, and environmental conditions that shape the health of populations; conditions that are closely tied to the state of our politics. As an immigrant to this country, the election took on an even more personal relevance. Informed by both perspectives, the following is a version of a note I sent to our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Like me, it is sad, but hopeful.

The results of the 2016 election are historic, and largely unexpected. The negative tenor of the political cycle we have just witnessed, the nature of Donald Trump's candidacy and his troubling statements about a range of issues and groups have left many of us anxious about what his victory could mean for the country and the world. My own reaction has been deeply informed by my experience as an immigrant to the United States, and as a father trying to explain an often distressing world to his children.

I was born in Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean. As a teenager I immigrated to Canada before coming to the US in 1999 to pursue my Master's training. Like many immigrants, I came to this country because I saw it as a beacon, a place for pursuing dreams, and, eventually, living them. To me, and to others like me, the US represented an opportunity to do this on a scale unparalleled anywhere in the world.

That is why it was such an extraordinary shock to the system to wake up to a country that has, seemingly, embraced the very opposite of these aspirations. In electing Donald Trump, we have chosen a leader who launched his campaign for higher office with an explicitly anti-immigrant appeal, an appeal that was quite clearly tinged with racism. This campaign was punctuated by moments demonizing "the other." This theme emerged time and again, from Trump's initial branding of Mexicans as "rapists," to his calls to ban all Muslims from entering the country. I will not even speak to his unacceptable comments about women. Trump's success, despite his innumerable remarks demeaning large segments of the population, is a sad commentary on how far we as a society still have to go towards achieving equity and respect for all.

In light of his victory, I find myself asking: do I and other "others" belong in a country that has just elected an anti-other candidate? I can only imagine how other immigrants and other too-often marginalized groups feel now.

Fear of "the other" is particularly familiar to us in public health. During outbreaks of disease, we have seen how certain groups can be unjustly blamed for spreading contagion. In the 14th century, Jews were blamed for the Black Death; more recently, Africans faced travel difficulties because of fears that they might spread Ebola. By playing to this anxiety, Trump made it clear that we have not yet moved beyond the temptation to scapegoat groups when times are hard.

I think about this, and I wonder how to explain the election to my children. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that those who would demonize immigrants are not the majority in this country. They are, one hopes, a very small minority, who succeeded in influencing a much larger national phenomenon. This is, after all, a nation built by immigrants, one that has historically celebrated their diversity of experience.

I have to believe that we are better than this. I have to believe that, despite what has happened, we are still moving towards being a country that is ever-more inclusive, more accepting of the other. I am encouraged in this belief by the many examples of tolerance and respect I see around me every day, among the academic community of which I am a part.

The campaign of the last year has exposed hatred in our society, making it unignorable. Now that these forces have been so thoroughly brought to light, we must hope that we will be able to truly reckon with them, to build a better society. The election has made us acknowledge fear of the other and shown us just how widespread it is. May we hope, going forward, to move towards a country that does not reject the other.

I realize that I am in many ways fortunate. I have the extraordinary privilege of serving as the dean of a prominent school of public health. I have resources that allow me to push for positive change, and to add my voice to the public debate. Recently, I have found myself wondering how others feel, those who do not have such advantages, who are more economically and socially vulnerable, lacking a voice in the broader conversation around the issues that affect them most. My hope is that they know that there are millions of people who support them, respect them, and value them. It is incumbent on us, in the months and years ahead, to express this support in ways big and small. This means continuing, through our scholarship and our advocacy, to serve the disadvantaged; it also means reaching out, with empathy, on a person-by-person basis, never losing sight of the power of individual kindness in the face of hatred and intolerance.

I can only hope that Donald Trump will govern differently than he campaigned, that he does not truly mean the things he has said, that he has the best interests of each member of the American family at heart, including immigrants like me.