I pushed my cart past a young woman loading up on groceries yesterday. She grabbed a bulging family pack of chicken legs — the last of the chicken in the case.
I stopped and looked, because the empty shelves were surreal, not because I particularly needed chicken. She gave me a worried smile, eyes darting between me and her cart, which was overloaded with food. Based on the type of food, I gathered she had small children to worry about.
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding out the package of poultry. “Did you need this? I didn’t mean to take the last one.”
Her kindness set me back a step. I thanked her and declined with a warm smile. My pantry is stocked. With just me and my elderly father at home, our food needs don’t amount to much.
In the past two weeks, the world has woken to the reality of a serious pandemic
As we unite to fight a virus that threatens our civilized foundations, we find ourselves struggling to reconcile the common good with self preservation. In the next few weeks, many of us will grapple with ideas about who is our neighbor, who is our family, and who is other.
Our current president makes that struggle more difficult
With Donald Trump’s support for racists and xenophobes, ideas and groups that used to be on the fringes of society have become more and more mainstream. Steven Miller, an avowed white nationalist, is just one of many of Trump’s advisors who have made racism more acceptable in the United States.
Othering has become the norm with Trump at the helm. Racist and homo/transphobic figures who used to be relegated to the shadows now walk the corridors of power in the nation’s capital. They stand with Trump under bright lights at press conferences and fundraisers.
Trump and his deputies appear at hate-group events, delivering speeches and bestowing credibility and acceptability. Normalizing extremists.
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According to new data, hate groups are surging
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) just released its annual Year in Hate and Extremism report. For 2019, they note a sharp rise in white nationalist groups. “The white nationalist movement that was emboldened by the election of Donald Trump grew for a second straight year … to 155 — a 55 percent increase since 2017.”
The report noted a 43% spike in anti-LGBTQ hate groups, from 49 in 2018 to 70 last year.
The Trump administration has fully embraced anti-LGBTQ leaders and their agendas, enacting numerous policies targeting the rights of LGBTQ people. President Trump, once again, lent the legitimacy of the White House to hate groups like the Family Research Council when he spoke at its annual Values Voter Summit last October.
Racist, anti-semitic violence surged
Besides the proliferation of hate groups, the SPLC also noted a surge in violent racist and anti-semitic attacks last year, nationally and globally. Most of these attacks, including many mass shootings, were committed by people who cited the ideologies of the hate groups the SPLC tracks.
Notable extremist attacks and plots in 2019
Extremists across the United States and the world continued to launch attacks during 2019. But the worst carnage came…
Anti-LGBTQ violence rising and disproportionate
The FBI has found that not only is anti-LGBTQ violence rising in the United States, but that nearly 1 of every 5 hate crimes reported is motivated by anti-LGBTQ violence. This number is wildly disportionate to hate crime in general, given that only roughly 5% of the population identifies as LGBTQ.
Hate groups and violence are bad enough without a pandemic
I would have written about this year’s SPLC hate report no matter what. I do every year, and this year, things are worse than ever. Seeing the nation I love succumbing to racist extremism and xenophobia is hard to take.
The SPLC does an outstanding job monitoring the levels of hate in the United States, and we all need to see and understand the work they’re doing.
But this year, this week, global events highlight the need even more clearly. As a nation, as a species even, we face a challenge unlike any of alive now have seen before.
We’ll recover from the virus eventually. We’ll recover from what looks like inevitable economic devastation … eventually. But along the way, we’re going to have to decide who we are as a people. As a civilization.
The temptation of giving in to othering
We’ve already seen Trump and his allies working hard to blame external forces on the pandemic, as they point their fingers at China, seal national borders, and prioritize the needs of Americans over foreign nationals.
While sealing borders and looking inward may be necessary in the short term as one of many measures needed to slow the exponential growth rate of new infections, temptation will present danger.
Will the coronavirus become a rationale for more nationalism? Will political pressure grow to keep borders closed? Will white supremacist groups that make their bones from vilifying others grow even more influential?
Fear is the tool of the demagogue
Many a nationalist leader has had to invent fear to prop up authoritarianism and extremist policy. Many a demagogue has had to invent a threat to rally people to the cause.
Today our fear is real. President Trump doesn’t have to invent anything. The threat we face is existential and probably more serious than many of us yet realize.
What road will we choose?
In the supermarket yesterday, two strangers chose to cooperate for the common good.We acted as neighbors and chose to recognize each other’s needs. “No, please keep the chicken,” I told the young mother who graciously offered it to me. “I have enough food at home.”
That’s just a micro-example of the choices we’re going to have to make over the next many months — over and over again.
Will we resist racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, and homophobia?
In this time of crisis, will we choose to see people as our neighbors instead of as others? Will we resist the allure of Trumpism? Will we turn around the surge in a different infection plaguing the nation — the infection leading to an explosion of hate groups and violence?
Where will we be in a year?
I hold out hope that the SPLC’s next annual report will show that we’ve finally turned a corner. I hold out hope that a kinder, more moral man will be leading the nation, setting an example. I hold out hope that we meet the challenge of the coronavirus with love and unity.
The path lies before us now, and each of us has to choose who we are. Who we will become. It’s time to say no to hate and exclusion.
James Finn is a long-time HIV/LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.