The news comes this morning, following an online global shaming, of the resignation of the mayor of a small town in Clay County, WV, who had praised a revolting internet post by the director of the local development agency in which she had described Michelle Obama as an ape. I don't have to tell you that it was right that she should resign, and right that others in the community should condemn hate. The two women should send personal letters of apology to Mrs. Obama.
But note this from the article on the resignation: "The uproar occurred as the town of about 500 residents is still trying to recover from severe flooding in late June along the nearby Elk River. Clay County also has been hit by hundreds of layoffs in the coal industry this decade."
Now let's think. Was there the same national and international publicity about the catastrophes that have crushed this little community? Will there now be calls for aid?
Of course not. And therein lies a little clue to where Trumpism came from.
A local councilwoman pleaded with us all to visit Clay County, and meet the people. Most people will not, of course, take up her invitation. But having spent a week wandering around the poverty-stricken former mining areas of Wales last year, and having recently visited a working-class bar/grill with Asian husband while passing through West Virginia, and having a lovely time, I do recommend it, and hope I can visit Clay in the next year or two. We have to start talking to each other, and at the very least, give encouragement to the quiet majority of decent people.
But suppose the people of Clay are all bigots? Of course they are. Stay with me here, please: Years ago, in Los Angeles, I visited the Simon Wiesenthal museum (named for the famed Nazi hunter) To enter, you had to choose between two doors, marked "Prejudiced" and "Not Prejudiced." But the "Not Prejudiced" door was locked. There was only one way in. The message of course, was that we are all bigots. People find that hard to accept about ourselves. Even if we don't say "I'm not prejudiced, but . . .", we think it. The museum challenged that. We are all bigots, it said, and it was right.
Now is the time to remind you that many people of color, black , Latino, and Asian, voted for Trump. Many Jews voted for Trump. Many Catholics voted for Trump. Many, many women voted for Trump. And, thanks to his deliberate goading of their prejudices, many voted out of fear and hatred, as well as economic anxiety.
Is this uniquely American? Of course not. Every country, every people has its scapegoats. I remember telling a Glasgow man in California that I was a little anxious about how my grandfather and a few other Scottish relatives would receive the news that I was marrying an Asian-American. "Oh, they wont care if he's Martian and has three heads," he said, "as long as he isn't a Catholic." (It was pretty much true, by the way).
I have known people (and not all of whom are white) who have terrible prejudices in theory, whether about race, class, or religion, but who in practice have treated others with dignity and respect. And I don't know anyone, most especially myself, who has not had cause to fight the demon of prejudice. This is something I think about a great deal. I developed a character in Don't Know Where, Don't Know When,the first of The Snipesville Chronicles, who has proven enormously popular with my readers. Mrs. Devenish, a middle-class woman in wartime Britain, is a kind, compassionate, and formidable woman with great integrity, who is resolutely anti-racist. In One Way or Another, the final book in the series, I have written at length about her one glaring form of bigotry, one that was clear from the start to the readers who were paying attention, and how she fights it in herself. [Spoiler alert] It's social class.
This is not a call to tolerate discrimination. I do not ignore the realities of the connections between race and power. I hope that my life will stand as testament to my goodwill on those scores. But this reminds me that's something else I have learned from the close study of history: Seek out context before deciding. Seek to understand. Cultivate empathy. And never be afraid to challenge your own received ideas about anything. Seek new ways of looking at the world. Read, but--and I cannot stress this enough--beware of those who peddle hatred and discord and lies, because they are everywhere. Talk with people, no matter who they are. And keep listening, thinking, and above all, reading. Education is for life, in more ways than one. Most of all, let us all strive to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards of human decency, even knowing that we will, assuredly, fail.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com