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
I am so sorry that the world I’ve brought you into is one in which not only is Donald Trump possible, but possibly the next President of the United States. I had hoped that by this point in history, we would be better than this. Apparently, we’re not.
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