I’m not that old, even if my nineteen-year-old daughter Laura thinks I am. I say this because whenever I start talking about the time before Laura was born (1993), she rolls her eyes and make jokes about me walking five miles to school in bare feet through snowstorms, which, for the record, I never said I did. (We did ride to school on buses in bare feet through snowstorms, because shoes had not yet been invented.)
I bring up the past because unlike so many commentators I don’t know what’s going to happen next, so I don’t have much to say about the future. However, I do have some rather vivid memories of the past that seem to apply to the present.
One of the things I remember very well from the good old days is pervasive racism, sexism, ageism, and a general fear and loathing of homosexuals. There was a crackle of civil war in the air; many of our cities were burning; leaders were being shot right and left: from 1963 to 1968, Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; between 1978 and 1980 Harvey Milk, George Moscone, and John Lennon were gunned down.
Now, a black man is in the White House’s Oval Office. Gay Americans serve openly in the military. Women work in the highest echelons of government, business, universities, colleges, and religion. And I think to myself, the United States has much to be proud of.
Then, listening to the news, I hear a group chanting at a Newt Gingrich rally in Florida: “Kenya! Kenya! Kenya!”
I wish I could say they were from the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism, but I am sorry to report that these idiots were stating where they want to send the president of the United States.
The idea of sending black people back to Africa has a long history in this country, but in the mouths of white people after Reconstruction, I think I am on pretty safe ground when I say this is simply the white racist’s solution to the Negro Problem.
I’m an optimist. I want to believe human beings will come together and solve the serious problems that face us now and threaten our children’s future. I want to believe that the American dream is alive—not the dream of a big house and a couple of cars, but the dream that we will continue to work together to make this nation more just for everyone. I’d like to think that we really are all in this together—citizens of one nation—and that when push comes to shove, we have each other’s backs.
But I have my doubts, and not just because of a group of fools chanting at a Newt Gingrich rally. That’s their right, even if they are wasting an important right (free speech) on an unimportant matter (demonstrating that they are really stupid). I hear a lot of unintelligent things said here in San Francisco about conservatives, or Christians, or people who live in some strange part of the country like Oklahoma or Walnut Creek. Prejudice is prejudice, whether you are on the left, right, or in the middle.
Still, that group at the Gingrich rally represents an alarming, old, but living penchant for racism in this country. Like a weed that won’t go away, bigotry rises again and again. And if whites can be racist, so can anyone else. It is not a good trait to encourage in a nation largely made up of immigrants from everywhere. There is a hard core of racially-motivated white people in this nation who voted against Obama because he is black and wants him to fail at all costs. That group is found on the far right and is doing grave harm to the party of Lincoln. They spout hatred on the airwaves, undermining the very quality that makes this nation great: the active belief that we can make the world better for everyone.
That noble goal requires fairness and balance, not venom and intolerance. The anger and hate that has become commonplace, whether it is aimed at a black president or at a conservative evangelical Christian, is thinly disguised fear. Fear is the enemy that we must face if this nation is to continue to grow into its promise of greatness. We must, as we use to say so often in my childhood long ago, be the home of the brave. We must be brave enough to make room for everyone. And everyone, last time I checked, means everyone—gay people, Christians, Muslims, women, Latinos, rich people, poor people, people who have done time in prison. Even old people.