The summer of 2015 was truly historic — a snapshot of critical shifts and growing contrasts in American life. On one hand, we saw SCOTUS uphold the Affordable Care Act and legalize same sex marriage, Caitlyn Jenner bring the transgender conversation to more dinner tables, Bernie Sanders move corruption and class inequities squarely into the mainstream, #BlackLivesMatter inspire more White people to talk about race, and California move towards prison reform. On the other hand, we witnessed the Charleston massacre, Rachel Dolezal’s racial deception, Donald Trump’s xenophobic diatribes about Mexicans, and country clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriages licenses to LGBT couples.
Some days it feels like we’ve made epic progress as a nation. Other days it feels like we’ve regressed to the 1950s – or 1850s. I believe both are true, and that the progress is a cause of the regression.
An example: In the coverage following the attack on the Emanuel AME Church members in Charleston last June, one oddity stood out: the shooter said he became radicalized following the Trayvon Martin shooting. In other words, a young White man became a racist terrorist due to an incident where a biracial vigilante shot and killed a young, unarmed Black man committing no crime in his own neighborhood, then was let off scot-free by the courts. Huh? This sounds like a recipe to radicalize and mobilize Black people, not White people.
How terrified they must be. Despite the fact that African Americans comprise barely 13% of our population, bigoted Whites think Blacks are taking over the country. Despite the fact most homicides occur within racial groups, not interracially, bigoted Whites think there’s an epidemic of Black-on-White crime. And after the Charleston terrorist told his victims “you rape our women” he proceeded to murder six middle-aged to-elderly women.
How terrified they must be.
Another example: Donald Trump used the tired tactic of provoking Whites’ fear of imminent invasion from a dark continent by saying Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists bringing drugs and crime into the US. Then he stood baffled and unapologetic behind those statements, despite plenty of readily available, reputable research showing a decline in unauthorized immigration over the past 8 years and immigrants’ lesser tendency towards criminal behavior than the rest of us. There may always be bigoted race baiters like Trump trying to scare us into compliance with their agendas – what’s more disturbing is the fact he has millions of supporters. He’s the leading Republican presidential candidate at over30% popularity, which grew steadily all summer.
How terrified they must be.
A final example: Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis denies issuing marriage licenses to same sex and heterosexual couples despite a federal court order to comply with the law, saying she is “acting under God’s authority” and that to issue and affix her name to the licenses is a violation of her conscience and “a Heaven or Hell decision.” Supporters decried the consequences Davis faced as “oppression” and the “criminalization of Christianity”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is free to believe whatever she wants and practice Christianity freely – in a majority Christian nation, no less – but not free to earn a salary paid by the public’s money without complying with the public’s will. She is free to quit her job to maintain her integrity, as many (myself included) have done. Meanwhile, LGBT people haven’t even had the option of full freedom and human rights anywhere until very recently – and in many places still don’t.
Charleston, Trump, Davis. That’s a lot for one summer, despite the victories. I heard good people asking, “How could this happen in 2015?” Simple: Things are changing. We are making progress. And people are scared.
Let’s not be fooled about where we’re going as a nation. When you look at the data about the core beliefs of midlife Generation Xers and Millenials in their 20s and early 30s, the trend is clear. We’re steadily becoming more liberal on social issues, LGBT-friendly, multiracial and racially diverse, non-religious, anti-institutional and less likely to marry young, if at all. This growing shift has a dying minority in our country very, very nervous. Many of them have resources and power, and like any life form under threat, they are getting louder as they feel squeezed.
The status quo, which wasn’t working for a growing majority of us, is changing. Folks who were outnumbered aren’t anymore. Folks who were silent before aren’t anymore. More people who didn’t have formal education, financial resources or organized networks do now. Thus, those who were comfortable with the former status quo are now uncomfortable. I feel for them. While they rail about being the ones who are oppressed, the fact they feel threatened actually points to their power and privilege, since that’s what they’re losing. They can now glimpse what they were once blind to; what was once invisible in its normalcy. They didn’t realize what they considered “normal” no longer is, and is only one way to live or do things. They’re not necessarily bad people; the rules changed on them so they’re disoriented and angry.
But some aren’t good people, or they’re people behaving very badly. Let’s not be naïve. There are 784 active hate groups currently operating within the United States. “Lone wolf” terrorist activities on our own soil are on the rise – one occurred every 34 days over the last six years, in fact. Bigots applauded the Charleston shooter’s actions and mobilized against a retaliation that never came. They’re still preparing for a race war.
Let’s not be naïve about where the violence comes from. Let’s stop pretending hate groups aren’t mostly male and White. Let’s look at who’s spewing venom in the comment sections of progressively-minded articles and blogs (all but one of my trolls are White men). Let’s face the fact all the school shooters have been male, almost all White. Let’s seriously look at Dylan Roof and wonder how many millions more young White men are as angry, afraid and misguided as him, and how many of those have access to guns.
How terrified they must be. But why? Do they fear uncertainty? Loss of identity? Being ”persecuted” (AKA held accountable) for expressing traditional (AKA bigoted) beliefs? Do they fear that as “we” gain power and majorities that we will do unto “them” as they have done unto us? Or is it plain old fear of loss of power and control? No longer being in full control, blindly obeyed and unquestioned, nor alone at the top, may feel like being out of control or all the way at the bottom. It’s not. Welcome to “our” world, where most of us have always lived.
I’m honestly concerned about this fear. I don’t want anyone to suffer through these changes. This is one reason I do the work I do – preparing folks to be their best, most resilient and effective selves in workplaces that are looking more and more like the future we’ve long known was coming. But empathy should not take the place of our commitment to evolution or sway the firmness with which we stand our ground and hold space for our grandchildren’s flourishing. We are continuing the work of generations past, and laying new ground for those to come. For millenia, history has been moving slowly yet inexorably towards more freedom, equity, dignity and prosperity for all people – women, LGBT, people with physical limitations, people experiencing poverty, religious minorities and children. It will not stop with us. We will not be deterred.
But let’s not be naïve about the ease with which fear can turn into anger and violence. We must role model a new way of doing and being that is compassionate yet strong by doing the following:
- Just. Keep. Going.
- Build critical alliances.
- Focus on the neutral or undecided 70% of people in the middle of any change, instead of on the small minority of entrenched resistors and active disruptors.
- Equip White people – especially young White men – and other power-dominant groups (straight people, monolingual English speakers, the chronically wealthy, etc.) to adapt and find their place among us in the new world.
- Heal our own suffering and stay in compassion and integrity mixed with resolve.
- Stay open yet vigilant and proactive about the real danger posed by people who are afraid.
As our historical POTUS Obama said during the historical summer of 2015, “We’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
We will not be deterred. So let’s not be naïve.