Hate spreads in Trump's America: "We need to root out white supremacy just like the cancer it is"

Salon talks to Arjun Singh Sethi about helping hate crime victims speak out in his new book "American Hate"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Mourners embrace at a candlelight vigil on May 22, 2017 for Richard Collins III, who was stabbed to death at the University of Maryland, College Park. (AP/Brian Witte)
Mourners embrace at a candlelight vigil on May 22, 2017 for Richard Collins III, who was stabbed to death at the University of Maryland, College Park. (AP/Brian Witte)

Beginning with Donald Trump's presidential campaign, his defeat of Hillary Clinton, and now almost two years as president, there has been an almost unprecedented increase in hate crimes and other politically motivated violence against nonwhites, Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians, and other people identified as some type of enemy by Trump and his supporters. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also documented how Donald Trump's most enthusiastic supporters among the white supremacist so-called "alt-right" have killed and injured dozens of people in both individual attacks as well as mass murder starting in 2014 through to January 2018.

Other human rights watchdog groups have also kept an accounting of the many dozens of incidents where Donald Trump's supporters have literally shouted his slogans while attacking individuals who are supposedly members of groups (such as nonwhite immigrants) he has vilified and thus dehumanized. Other researchers have highlighted how Donald Trump's anti-Muslim comments on the social media platform Twitter and also his hate rallies have been correlated with an increase in hate crimes and other violence.

This data is an aggregate expression of individual suffering. These victims have names. These victims of Trumpism are also members of a larger community who have now been collectively traumatized.

What are their stories? How does the systemic violence encouraged, protected, and spread by Donald Trump and his Republican Party hurt whole groups of people? In what ways is the short-term and long-term health negatively impacted for those Americans and others who have been targeted for harassment by Donald Trump and his movement? How are those individuals and communities who have been victimized by Donald Trump and his supporters fighting back? What does justice look and feel like for those people who have been assaulted — literally and figuratively — by Donald Trump and his self-appointed foot soldiers?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Arjun Singh Sethi. He is law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, a civil rights lawyer, activist, and writer whose work has appeared at the Washington Post, USA Today, The Guardian and CNN. He is also the co-chair of  the American Bar Association’s National Committee on Homeland Security, Terrorism, and Treatment of Enemy Combatants.  He is the editor of the new book "American Hate: Survivors Speak Out".

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did this moment with Trump's ascendance and all the horrible things that it spawned come to be?

I don’t think there is any single explanation. There is a long and tortured history of racism and xenophobia in this country that we as a society have yet to confront. I think Trump capitalized on that ugly history and mobilized a lot of racist anti-immigrant xenophobic sentiment that has really always been there but that many of us had chosen to ignore.

I think the mainstream media in many ways discounted Trump — and discounted the base to which he was appealing. The news media continues to do this even today. And as a consequence he was able to win. Ultimately, the media in many ways gave him a pass because they didn’t take him seriously. Lo and behold a lot of the really destructive forces in this country just came to the surface and I think that is a large measure why Trump was elected.

I have repeatedly stated, in writing, interviews, and other venues that Donald Trump’s voters wanted to hurt people. Do you think that assessment is correct? 

I hesitate to say "all." I think a good number of Trump supporters endorse racist beliefs or at a very minimum are comfortable bystanders to it. One of the reasons I wrote the book is as a community activist I have been in regular touch with local organizers and activists who were sounding the alarm that there was something horrible brewing up beginning in late 2015 through to the election and inauguration. And that was just as Donald Trump was emboldening, empowering, facilitating, legitimizing these very destructive bigoted and racist social forces. This has real consequences. We have seen hate violence spike across the country. In many of these examples the attackers specifically mention Trump or his policies. So there can be absolutely no doubt that Trump has intensified and exacerbated hate violence. And there can be no doubt that many of his supporters absolutely voted for a white supremacist president. And as a consequence those voters and other supporters bear responsibility for what marginalized communities are experiencing in this moment.

What I find shocking is that the media won’t give the same time of day or coverage to communities who are being targeted by hate violence. They are spending so much time humanizing white nationalists and humanizing white supremacy that in many ways the news media  routinely ignore the ubiquitous and every day hate that communities of color and other diverse communities experience in this country.

We have been trying to sound the alarm about Donald Trump and what he and his right-wing movement represent because we care about all people on both sides of the color line. This is a human rights issue. 

I still struggle with the fact that a majority of white Americans feel they are victims of discrimination. What these white Americans have to do is unpack their own anxiety, discuss this rage, and understand that the project of civil rights, human rights, equality under the law are not an assault on their racial identity. I think for some white voters it is probably about what they perceive as waning demographic and economic power. My retort is that we just want a more level playing field. There has been much racial progress in this country from the civil rights movement to the age of Obama. But the  problem is a lot of white Americans don’t see it as progress. They see Barack Obama becoming president as a threat to their racial identity. They see black CEOs as a threat to their economic livelihood. In reality a more level playing field and a commitment to civil and human rights is in everyone’s interest.

America will face a reckoning. There must be moral accountability.

The United States has a terrible record of confronting the atrocities of the past. This country was built on a hate crime; it was built on the decimation and destruction of native communities and furthered by unquestionable hate crimes and mass atrocities including slavery, Jim Crow and even mass incarceration. The good news is I learned from my travels around the country that the survivors of hate, people who have lost so much, are not only rebuilding but they are coming forward and they are reclaiming their lives. These survivors are working with allies to stop the hatred, building community defense programs and are willing to engage in difficult conversations with people who see the world differently from them. And I think that is something to really admire. Given what’s transpired survivors of hate have every reason to turn their backs on this country.

Trumpism comes crashing down on individuals. It is not an abstraction. People's lives are, in many cases, literally in jeopardy.   

There are very real consequences from a white supremacist holding the highest office in the land. There are very real consequences to Trump using the bully pulpit to foster hate on the basis of almost every human characteristic, be it race, faith, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, gender, or class. In this project I really wanted to meet with these survivors , hear their stories and document this moment. The survivors also need to  have their agency respected. The media loves to cover acts of hate violence for a short window of time. In some ways maybe we’ve become desensitized to it. These survivors are still struggling and they are still rebuilding. So it was very important to me to meet these survivors in person and have them tell their stories in their own words because too often they are discredited or ignored.

As you traveled around the country speaking with survivors, you are, as a practical matter, asking them to relive trauma. How did you approach such a challenging and difficult situation?  

I’ve had the honor and privilege of working closely with marginalized communities across the United States. When I started on the book the first thing I did was speak with a lot of the local activists and community organizations across the country who have been working for and in service of their communities for years and in some cases decades. In some cases I would reach out to them. In other cases I would follow-up from a story that garnered national attention. How did I build trust? In some ways it was actually very basic. For example, in Victoria, Texas where a mosque was burned down after Trump's election I connected with the spokesperson and told him I would like to come to the community and hear their story. He was the surprised because almost no high profile nationally known journalists had actually come to Victory to cover the incident.  I told them I was not interested in just getting your story and trafficking it in a book. I really want to work with the community.

Every survivor that I spoke to is strong, resilient and wants to tell their stories.  One of the things I am hoping to do is to actually organize community conversations in the cities where the survivors live so they can remain connected and where we can actually engage people on these difficult issues. I tried to ensure that there was a diversity of voices such as refugee voices, undocumented voices, trans voices, queer voices, Sikh voices, Muslim voices, Arab voices and others. I also had to show the full spectrum of hate that Trump has inspired such as bullying, vandalism, arson, assault and murder.

Donald Trump has unleashed his enforcers on immigrants, refugees, undocumented citizens, nonwhites, and others. He and his administration have actually ordered that concentration camps be built to hold up to 100,000 people. This is a crime against humanity and a violation of international law.  

The policies of the Trump administration cannot be divorced from the rhetoric of the Trump administration. The rhetoric and the policies are both driven by xenophobia, Islamaphobia, misogyny and white supremacy. And if the government is going to treat diverse and marginalized communities as subhuman so will everyone else. This is the president who said he wanted to ban Muslims and refugees. This is the president who said that he wanted to deport the Dreamers. This is the president who has at times violated the sensitive location policy where for years there was at least some kind of understanding in this country that border patrol and immigration enforcement wouldn’t go in to houses of worship, schools and universities, or hospitals. We have seen these terrible images of people coming out of court rooms and hospitals for example being arrested and put in deportation proceedings. We have to be prepared for much worse from the Trump administration because this is what he has said that he would do all along. It is naïve and foolish of us to think that he is not going to follow through on his promises.

READ MORE: Exclusive: Inside accused Annapolis shooter's alt-right theology of mass murder

Trump's immigration policies literally are designed to keep America a white majority country. I have described it as "soft ethnic cleansing." This is only the beginning of Trump's open white supremacist campaign.

They are already pursuing a denaturalization clause. Trump and his Republican right-wing allies might ultimately try to go after birthright citizenship too. They will push their agenda as far as it can possibly go. And that’s why only 16 months after the inauguration we are actually having a conversation about children being separated from their parents and put in open air cages.

It is dystopic.

I have met with survivors who have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. One survivor, Tanya Gersh, described to me how she rarely says hello to strangers and is not as gregarious and outgoing as she used to be. She described to me how after she was viciously trolled by white supremacists in Whitefish, Montana. There were something like 700 forms of communication such as emails, social media messages, voice mails. She told me she had to have a conversation with her ten year old about the Holocaust and how every Jewish parent struggles with when to have that conversation with their children about anti-Semitism.

Hate crimes that target individuals send a community wide message that its members are not welcome. This undermines feelings of safety and security. It is  called "vicarious trauma." For example the vandalism and arson of house of worship, the targeting of organizations, student groups, campus communities or even state sponsored forms of hate are also designed to terrorize whole communities and groups of people. We also know that hate literally kills people by making communities physically and emotionally sick.

How are victims organizing for self-protection? Likewise, how are communities rallying against these hate crimes in the age of Trump?

It is not enough to have conversations. We need to root out white supremacy, city by city and state by state, just like the cancer it is. There needs to be pressure on lawmakers, rallies and economic boycotts of companies that aid and enable hatred. Self defense classes are on the rise across the country. There are also neighborhood watch programs and hate free zones. We also see an, expanding the sanctuary network for undocumented immigrants across this country. There are so many ways that people are moving forward and rebuilding. These town hall and other meetings are also very important for people to come together who have not only told their stories already but for those others who are languishing in silence. There are many victims of hate crimes who out of fear remain silent. Hate crimes are very underreported in America. The stats do not capture the scale of the problem.

What does justice look like?

Justice is a lot of things. First and foremost it is ensuring that victims have the resources to move forward with their lives. That includes health care, other benefits, a decent wage, and also making sure that the communities who are being terrorized in this moment have the resources they need to rebuild and heal if possible. The policies which criminalize and target communities such as the Muslim ban, mass incarceration, immigration raids, hate violence and the like must stop as well. The War on Terror must stop as well because I don’t think you can separate what the United States does abroad with what it does to its own people — especially nonwhites, Muslims, and other marginalized and discriminated against communities. Justice also involves archiving this moment, documenting what survivors and their communities have experienced. But I will tell you that there is no one size fits all answer. It should ultimately be determined by the survivors. In my book there are survivors  who forgave the aggressors and culprits in open court and elsewhere because they don’t believe that prison is the answer. There are others who felt otherwise. But overwhelmingly the survivors that I met are open to reconciliation so long as there is accountability.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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American Hate Arjun Singh Sethi Books Civil Rights Donald Trump Human Rights Race Racism