By Arlene Holt-Baker
There is no escaping or writing off the division in our country that Donald Trump's candidacy for President of the United States has unleashed. I have known the signs of racism all of my life. I was born in Texas in 1951 when the signs of Jim Crow surrounded me at every turn.
Like many African-Americans I too chose to migrate from Texas to join other members of my family in places that were seen as more welcoming and progressive to blacks, not unlike those families written about in Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," a sweeping historical account of the black migration from the South to the North after the 1940's. I settled in California, where my children were born and where they grew up in a suburban community filled with rich diversity. They were taught to love and respect all people.
My son-in-law grew up in a similar environment, surrounded by the Hills of Los Angeles and a diversity of friends that looked like the United Nations. My son-in-law and daughter, who now live in Maryland, are making every effort to instill in their children the values that were instilled in them.
My son-in-law is one of the kindest men you would ever want to meet. He is smart, intelligent, and handsome, a fitting role model for my only grandchildren; he has my greatest love and respect.
However, a few weeks ago as my 6'3, 36-year-old, 240-pound muscled African-American son-in-law was working out at the gym in Virginia that he frequents when a white patron of the gym, who my son-in-law does not know, approached him to tell him that "Black Lives Matter was a terrorist group." My son-in-law reacted to this stranger in the manner of a psychologist trying to get to the root of this man's motivation and asked this gentleman why. My son-in-law explained the significance of Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate number of Black males who are stopped by police while walking or driving, only to be shot by police using excessive force. He explained the economic conditions and structural racism that leads to hopelessness among so many black Americans. He broke it down like the mathematician that he is.
None of this changed this fellow's mind, but it frightened me beyond words when my son-in-law told me what happened because I wanted to know what was really on this stranger's mind. Why would he approach a 6'3 African-American male that he didn't know to make such a provocative statement about "Black Lives Matter"? This question can be answered in one word "Trumpism," the ideology that has risen under Trump that is rooted in white populist nationalism.
A few days after my son-in-law told me of his experience, I would not have believed in a million years that I too would have experienced the most uncomfortable and overt racist act that I had felt since I was a young girl growing up in Texas.
My twin granddaughters, who are 4-years-old, love the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's Butterfly Exhibit in Washington, D.C., where my husband and I live. I'm a typical grandmother. I grant their wishes, even if it means visit the same exhibit three times in two months. As they moved with lightning speed through the museum, their energy and laughter are infectious and captured the admiring glances of some of the museum patrons. But I was struck by the look on the face of a white man wearing a camouflaged hat and whose arms and neck were heavily tattooed and who stared at the girls and me with a look of such disdain and hatred. My guard went up immediately, as I looked at him for a moment before I moved on. I was emotionally shaken, but found some solace that it was not likely that he had anything dangerous on him because he and all museum goers are subject to going through security. But still, I hesitated for a moment.
I thought about my precious grandchildren and wondered what kind of person could look at children with such disdain, and then I quickly thought back to my son-in law's experience two days earlier and the answer was clear, once again, it's connected to "Trumpism."
Racism existed before Trump, and it will continue after him, but his unabashed audacity to unleash hateful rhetoric aimed at people of color, immigrants, women and the disabled has given some in our country comfort to openly act on their hate with words, hostile looks and tweets. All is not perfect in America, but for those of us who truly believe in the ideal of America (and I believe most Americans do), it is critical that we choose leaders who believe in the promise of America, the goodness of Americans and the ever improving greatness of America.
Donald Trump has no decency, and he has emboldened those who hate and fear the "other." "Trumpism" is too dangerous for America's future. He must be stopped.
Arlene Holt-Baker is a trade union activist and labor leader. She was the Executive Vice-President of the AFL-CIO, becoming the first African American in the federation's history to serve as an officer.