Trump’s rhetoric is going to get us killed
But that doesn’t stop my faculty colleagues from echoing and amplifying it
“Donald Trump’s rhetoric is going to get me killed.”
That’s what I told a room full of my colleagues at American University last October. We were in a faculty training session on unconscious bias, one of several initiatives that university administrators started to try to create a more inclusive campus environment.
Almost a year later, as my alma mater and employer grapples with yet another round of racist incidents on campus, I stand by what I said that day.
In addition, I argue that my fellow faculty members, though they may never be held accountable, are partly to blame for our current state of affairs.
Earlier this month, black students at AU reported that they’d been harassed and assaulted by white students. One female student said a man opened her dorm room door and threw a rotten banana at her. Another said she found a rotten banana outside her door and an explicit drawing on her white board. In response, the university held two town halls, and a student group held a demonstration.
Last year, white students used the mobile app Yik Yak to make anonymous racist comments about black students.
One wrote: “First you bring Ebola here, then you start riots and destroy our cities. … Go back to Africa.”
Another wrote: “If the blacks spent more time fixing their people instead of fixing their hair we wouldn’t be in this situation. #rugs #thugs #drugs.”
These themes — “Go back to where you came from” and “Fix your people” — are ones that I, and most other people of color, have heard many times before.
As AU student Ma’at Sargeant told the Washington Post after the recent banana incidents: “This kind of thing has been happening at AU for years. Last year, people wrote the n-word on black students’ doors and put up Trump stickers on the doors of Hispanic students. This is not just a one-time thing.”
No, it’s not.
I was born in Texas. So were my parents, their parents and so on. I worked in the cotton fields in the Reagan years, when my colleagues were taking tap lessons and geeking out over Star Wars.
As a child, I frequently was mistaken for an undocumented immigrant. I was called a “wetback” and the n-word by white people all the time. Teachers slapped me for speaking Spanish. Grown men and women bruised and bloodied my little body.
Like the AU sophomore Sargeant, I know a threat when I see it — or hear it.
When Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States, he told the crowd that the immigrants coming from Mexico are rapists, among other things.
I’m sure some of my colleagues were aghast. One does not say such things in the halls of academe, a bastion of liberal thought, or so I imagined before I was granted access and came to know better.
When I heard Trump say those words, my response was physiological. I felt the fight-or-flight flash that had overcome me the night a white man, hurling slurs, chased me out of his house while trying to point a gun at me. I kept running, zigzagging and ducking.
I had been talking about music with his son. I hadn’t been doing anything wrong. I was in middle school.
Just a day after Trump launched his presidential bid, Dylann Roof gunned down nine black worshipers in South Carolina. He spared one woman, who said Roof told her, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
I recalled a horrifying image: Two Mexican men who had been lynched hung from ropes, surrounded by little white boys, one of them smiling, seemingly with satisfaction.
Later, two Red Sox fans beat a homeless Latino with a metal pipe. They told police: “Donald Trump was right” and “All these illegals need to be deported.” The victim was an American citizen.
I knew Trump had started something he couldn’t control, not that I’m certain he ever wanted to.
Identity vs. ideology
By the time I arrived at the October faculty training session on unconscious bias, I had been fielding questions and concerns about Trump from students for months. I had been on high alert for my own safety. I had lost hope that Republican primary voters would vote in the interest of citizens like me instead of aligning themselves with the alt-right.
Near the end of the training session, which was facilitated by experts from the Southern Poverty Law Center, we watched a video about what our students are experiencing and concerned about on campus.
One segment was about transgender students. Afterward, a white female faculty member said, in effect, that if we are going to be sensitive to transgender students then we also should be sensitive to Trump supporters.
That wasn’t the first time I’d heard a white colleague attempt to normalize or echo racist rhetoric. Once one told me immigrants “are using up all the resources,” something we frequently hear from the alt-right. He didn’t mention that the taxes that all immigrants pay exceed the cost of the services they consume.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a colleague indicate the concerns of the underrepresented or marginalized aren’t worth fighting for. Once, when I confided in one about the discrimination that I’d experienced on campus, she asked me why I’d want to work where nobody wants me. She didn’t say the university community should do better or that she would help make sure it did.
So, I wasn’t surprised that a colleague would recommend that faculty members entertain Trump’s racist rhetoric in the classroom.
I was surprised, however, that only one other colleague objected. That ally argued we shouldn’t falsely equate identity with ideology.
I understood, of course. I am Latino American, but I have held different ideologies throughout my lifetime.
Others in the room, most of them white, didn’t seem to get it. I put it in terms I thought they could understand: “Donald Trump’s rhetoric is going to get me killed.”
Them vs. us
Later, I believe around the time when Trump seemed to be encouraging supporters to beat up protesters, I ran into the colleague who had tacitly supported Trump’s rhetoric.
She theorized that the GOP wanted John Kasich as its nominee and was courting Trump to eliminate Ted Cruz. I sensed she was distancing herself from Trump while making excuses for Republicans supporting a racist, bigoted demagogue.
She said she doesn’t understand why Latinos hang on to their heritages. After all, she insisted, white people don’t hang on to their European roots. (St. Patrick’s Day parades, “Downton Abbey” and British literature courses don’t count, because we are swimming in European whiteness, I guess.)
I figured she didn’t understand why I had a stake in this debate. It matters to me, I explained, because, no matter how Americanized I might be or any other Latino American might be, white people often can’t tell us apart from undocumented immigrants.
I told her about an incident a couple of years ago. Protesters had gathered in Arizona to demonstrate against the housing of undocumented, unaccompanied minors. They converged on a yellow school bus. Only the bus wasn’t full of undocumented immigrants. It was full of young American citizens — YMCA campers. Nobody was harmed, but it illustrates what can go wrong when rhetoric inspires wrong assumptions and potentially dangerous behavior.
She said she wished “they” (meaning Latin Americans) would just get their countries together so that “they” wouldn’t have to come here.
I realized she was ignorant about the violence, politics and economies in the affected countries — and that she didn’t care. She just didn’t want “them” here. It didn’t matter if “they” were going to be in her classroom.
The effects of dangerous rhetoric
I’m sure most of my colleagues can read the Yik Yak posts students posted last year and recognize that they’re racist. But I am not so sure that they understand that their comments often are too.
Teachers should be able to identify dangerous rhetoric and should know that dangerous rhetoric can inspire violence. Just this summer, for example, a Trump supporter stabbed an interracial couple. He had been enraged by seeing them kiss.
Teachers should know that dangerous rhetoric can have subtler, but still damaging, effects. At the height of anti-Muslim rhetoric after the Sept. 11 attacks, women with Arabic-sounding names were more likely to bear children with low birth weights. In addition, a study of children of survivors of the Holocaust found specific genetic changes from trauma had been passed down.
Though we still have a lot to learn about the long-term effects of stress, we have mounting evidence that discrimination and abuse have effects across generations.
One last thing teachers should know: Exposure begets understanding.
Although some Trump apologists often claim his supporters are simply fed up with being on the losing end of trade and immigration, a Gallup survey found that they aren’t disproportionately affected by either.
What Gallup did find, however, is that Trump supporters, generally speaking, don’t get a lot of exposure to people who are not like them. If Trump’s supporters are largely insulated, it is not surprising that they accept and sometimes violently embrace their candidate’s false claims about immigrants and other minorities.
Similarly, if white faculty members’ experiences with immigrants and underrepresented minorities are limited, for example, to experiences with those who are in service to them — their nannies, yard maintenance workers and office janitors — they’re likely not going to understand the concerns of a Latino faculty member like me or their underrepresented students.
They’re also likely to have difficulty recognizing when they’re perpetuating dangerous rhetoric about us.
Dehumanization on campus
In just the first week of this semester, like probably a lot of professors of color, I had multiple former students of color show up at my office hours.
One young woman told me she and her friends had been terrified of the boy wearing the Trump hat on the campus shuttle and that they had panicked when they saw border patrol officers on campus and locked themselves in their rooms for the rest of the night.
Later, a young black student came to talk about the banana incidents and how the university might respond.
They know a threat when they see it or hear it, too.
What my colleagues can do
Why did white adults abuse me? Why did a white supremacist attack an interracial couple? Why did David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, cheer Trump’s recent immigration speech? Why do my colleagues want immigrants to go home? Why do white students harass and assault black classmates?
Because they see us — black and brown, immigrants and citizens — as disposable, dangerous and unworthy of even the things they take for granted.
We know this. It’s up to us to do something about it, because, as we also know, students and their parents trust universities to both teach them and keep them safe.
But universities can’t do either if faculty members won’t interrogate rhetoric of all kinds — including their own — and stomp out that which puts students at risk. And, no, I’m not suggesting that teachers expel Trump supporters and racists from their classrooms.
I am suggesting that they correct falsehoods and fallacies so that in-class discussions aren’t reduced to the likes of Facebook memes or cable news discussion panels in which Trump’s dangerous rhetoric gets normalized again and again.
I’m suggesting that faculty members who are our allies be vocal, as my colleague in that faculty training session was and as a few others have been on Twitter about the most recent problems on campus.
Students and faculty members of color can’t make campuses more inclusive without white allies. That’s what I tell my students all the time: We need help.
And, to be clear, students and faculty of color very well may mistake allies’ silence as opposition, resignation or disinterest.
Institutions — the media and the Republican party, for starters — have done their parts for white supremacy. So, too, has the academy. You need only look at faculty demographics.
But how will the academy, or at the very least my own colleagues, act now?
Donald Trump’s rhetoric, amplified by the media, politicians and my fellow faculty members, is going to get me or one of our students killed.
Michael A. Moreno teaches writing at American University, the University of Maryland University College and at Bard College at the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C.