Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Sally Kohn: Donald Trump is a mirror reflecting a dark and dangerous part of our history
Our history has progressed imperfectly, but make no mistake about it, it has progressed, Kohn says
Despite what Donald Trump may wish, facts matter. Or they should, anyway. And we – and the people we elect – should get the facts straight about Sharia and Islam. It’s in all our interests.
You know some of what Donald Trump has said and done in this campaign. You hear it on the news, kids talk about it at school. “I hate Donald Trump,” you said the other day during breakfast. Please don’t. Don’t hate one sad man with a lot of power and little self-restraint. And don’t hate the people who are enthusiastically supporting him. Donald Trump is running a campaign of hate, and hate cannot be solved by hate but by empathy and understanding.
It is important for you to understand what Donald Trump represents. He is a mirror reflecting a dark and dangerous part of our history that, whether we like it or not, is in all of us. So I want you to understand the part we’ve all played, whether we meant to or not, in giving rise to Donald Trump.
Our nation was born of genocide. Before there was even a glimmer of anything called America, there were millions of native peoples living all across this land. But to make way for our white forebears, the native people were slaughtered. Ever since, the idea of who “we” are as white Americans has been defined in perpetual opposition to some threatening, non-belonging “them.” This is not new. It is our national DNA.
But white Americans rationalized the slaughter of native people who they saw as lesser – as “savages” not quite as human as the colonizers themselves. This same “logic” was applied to rationalize slavery – that people from Africa were somehow inherently less than the white European Americans and, therefore, it made perfect sense for the one to subjugate and oppress the other. Even after the abolition of slavery, the persistent belief in the inferiority of black Americans led to decades of enforced segregation and violent oppression – as it still leads to injustice today.
When you look back on this horrid history, it’s important you understand that slave holders and segregationists and those who defended inequality did not think they were doing anything uniquely wrong. In fact, for the most part they believed their actions to be just. The same is true of those supporting intolerance and inequality today. Mass injustice doesn’t result from a “few bad apples,” but from the mass of people willfully supporting injustice.
There was a time in our history when sexual assault was not even a concept, let alone a crime. So too, the lynching of black men and women was often ignored or even actively encouraged by our leaders and their laws. There is no doubt that we have made progress since then, but not nearly enough. I remain desperate to protect you from a society that quietly but habitually tells you that as a girl, you’re not equal to boys – that you’re more valued for your body than your brains, that you don’t deserve the same opportunities let alone the same basic respect. And the truth is, black men and women are still treated vastly differently under our laws and in our communities. As you grow up, it will be easier for you to get into college and get a job and buy a home than it will be for your black friends. That’s not because you will have earned it more or deserve it more, but because our society thinks less of people who aren’t white. At the same time, you will be less likely to be harassed in stores or stopped by police, let alone shot and killed based on nothing but the suspicion that we unconsciously attach to dark skin. This isn’t something for you to feel guilty about. This is something for you to help change.
Still, even in the face of this imperfect history, I was under the illusion that we had all progressed further than it turns out we have. As the arc of our history has bent, however haltingly, toward justice, most Americans grew to actively reject overt sexism and racism and other kinds of discrimination, and at least aspire to fight against the unconscious biases that still haunt our lives.
Despite this, a not insignificant fraction of Americans, even today, see the equal treatment of women and people of color as a bad thing. They believe that if others get more opportunity, they will get less. These Americans see themselves as history’s rightful owners of opportunity. When they talk about wanting to “Make America Great Again,” the “better times” they evoke may have seemed better for white Americans, but they were eras of torment and torture for people of color and, often, women as well. Always be wary of anyone who promises a better future by going backwards. The future by definition aspires toward progress.
Our progress as a nation is something you can be proud of. As you grow up, it’s important you understand more and more about the dark parts of America’s history, but also the bright moments where we moved forward. Once upon a time in our nation, black people were the legal property of white people and only white men could vote. We changed all that. Our history has progressed imperfectly, but make no mistake about it, it has progressed – and that simple but glorious fact should always give you hope. Do not let those fighting against this progress convince you that they are the only ones who love their country. Fighting to make our nation more inclusive and more just is one of the highest forms of patriotism I can imagine. If you always fight for fairness and justice, you will make me proud and you will make our country proud. You will be a bright light in our nation’s still-unfolding story.
All of this may be too hard for you to understand right now. After all, you’re only eight years old. But I know you understand the difference between right from wrong. And I know that you know the things Donald Trump has said about Mexicans and veterans and Muslims and women are wrong. More importantly, you know that what he stands for is wrong – a narrow vision of America that promises opportunity for some through the oppression of others. That “logic” shaped the mistakes of our nation’s past. I pray every night it will not shape our future.
You’ve said that if Donald Trump wins, you want to move to India. I’m afraid to tell you that the current prime minister of India isn’t much better than Trump. But more importantly, no matter what happens on Election Day, we will stay and fight for justice. If Trump wins and does the things he has promised, we will not only march in the streets, but we will use our bodies to stop his forces from entering mosques or raiding homes of immigrants. And if Trump does not win, we will still need to fight – against the strains of intolerance and hate that still course consciously and unconsciously through each of our minds and our entire nation. If Trump is defeated, there is much work to be done to ensure that another Trump does not rise.
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On November 8, I will take you with me to vote. And together we will vote to elect Hillary Clinton the first woman president in the 227-year history of the U.S. presidency. And with that choice we will also vote to uplift the best of America’s values. With every fiber of our beings, we will continue to vote and speak and write and march and do whatever we can to uphold and uplift justice and inclusion and fairness and kindness and equal opportunity for all.
I cannot promise you that these values will always govern every moment of our nation’s future, just as they clearly failed at times in our past. But I can promise you that I will fight for a world and a country that is, at its core, as loving and generous and beautiful as you are. I will fight for the world that you and all children deserve. Electing Hillary Clinton and defeating Donald Trump is just one step. Onward.
No matter how much they try, Republicans can’t make Hillary Clinton guilty.