Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why I am afraid

Athenian ostrakon. They used these to vote citizens into exile.
(From the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names.)
I spent all day afraid—a lump in my throat, a twitchy tension in my shoulders, as though I worried someone was about to punch me. I don't even have the most to fear—I am not an American Muslim, I am not Latino, I am not African-American—and I was, nevertheless, afraid all day because the country elected Donald Trump president. It's not Trump I fear, at least not mainly—I refuse to grant him the dignity of being feared—it's what his election says about the country, my fellow citizens, and how the country views any minority or immigrant. For the first time in my life (and knowing this feeling is new to me actually makes me remarkably lucky), I feel anxious just—and specifically—because I'm not white. There is no real likelihood that I'm going to be deported, or shot by the police due to implicit bias, or have my house of worship vandalized—and yet I am afraid, and I don't know when that fear is going to subside. Let me describe why I feel this way, especially for those who may never have known any fear like it.

In Donald Trump's worldview, no non-white American's patriotism or citizenship are ever beyond question when you do something he doesn't like. He professes to be "the least racist person I know," and says, "I’m going to help the African-Americans, I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics"; he has enjoyed pointing out his minority supporters at rallies. But it is clear from his repeated behaviors that non-white Americans only enjoy his goodwill as long as they are on his side. He calls into question the American-ness of any minority who does something he dislikes; he denies them a place in this country. This was true of Gonzalo Curiel ("He's a Mexican"). This was true of President Obama. In proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, he implicitly denied that American Muslims could really be Americans.

The case that I remember most strongly, because the person involved was so much like me, is that of Joseph Choe, a 20-year-old Korean-American student at Harvard. Choe pressed Trump about his false claim that South Korea contributes nothing to the cost of maintaining the American presence there. (That's not true; South Korea pays $861 million, about half the cost.) Trump heckled him a bit for wearing a Harvard sweatshirt, and then called his nationality—and, implicitly, his loyalty—into question:
Even as he finally got the microphone and began to ask his question about South Korea, Choe was interrupted by Trump. "Are you from South Korea?" Trump asked. "I'm not," Choe replied. "I was born in Texas, raised in Colorado." Some in the audience laughed and, soon after, Choe lost the floor.
Asian-Americans have been less directly threatened by Trump's words and positions during the campaign than other racial minorities (or women, or Muslims). But Asian-Americans, too, are not beyond question when Trump marks them as enemies.

Donald Trump is just one person. But he now has the power of the executive branch of the federal government behind him, and possibly the complicit power of the other branches as well. When he decides to call into question the citizenship and loyalty of someone he dislikes, he will henceforth do so with the power of the state behind him. The message is clear: "You may have been born here; you may have lived here all your life—but your American-ness is contingent on being in my good favor." There is nothing that any non-white American can do to earn the right to be unquestionably American in Trump's eyes. Every non-white is potentially secretly from somewhere else, secretly a threat—and the best way to de-legitimize their criticisms, no matter how accurate, is to brand them un-American.

That alone cannot make me afraid. But Donald Trump is not alone. (Though no previous Republican ever publicly questioned the citizenship of minority Americans like this.) About 59,630,000 people voted for Trump. That's 24.9% of all American adults. (That includes some of my friends and members of my family.) A quarter of the country either actively endorsed Trump's attitudes and actions toward non-white Americans—this denial of American-ness to other Americans simply because of race—or deemed them of merely secondary concern behind other issues of greater perceived priority. The message to all non-white Americans (even when the voter sending the message is herself non-white) is: "The integrity of your citizenship matters less to me than control of the Supreme Court, or my hatred of free trade deals, or my frustration with 'the system.' Your place in this community can be traded off for more important things." When it comes from a white voter, it's hard not to understand this as a statement that our citizenship is less equal, or at least less equally certain, than their own. We do not belong unconditionally; we are always potential outsiders, possible threats, merely because of race.

Even if that's not what 59.6 million people believe, they endorsed and hence empowered that view. And knowing that, it's hard for me not to feel stabbed in the back by every fourth person—denied an equal place in the social contract, the governing project. I was adopted when I was three months old, naturalized since three years old; America is the only country that will ever truly be mine. And yet my own compatriots would, in deed if not in belief, deny that fact. Never before have I felt so unwelcome in my own country. I had never doubted that this would always be my home; that the stories that we tell about melting pots and huddled masses were so deeply knit into the American character that they would never be cast into doubt; that I could take pride and comfort in our status as an open society. 59.6 million people shattered those beliefs.

Why am I afraid? This election explicitly broke a core form of democratic trust: the belief that all citizens have an equal place in this society. A quarter of adult Americans would at least entertain the idea that—because I happen to look Asian, because I happen to have been born in a different country—if I get on the wrong side of the president, then I can't truly be a citizen. They don't fully trust me. They don't fully trust, as citizens, the 120 million non-white Americans with whom they are ostensibly in a governing project. 48 hours ago, I could pretend that this wasn't the case. Today—and for a long time to come—I know otherwise. And I am afraid that all of the rights and protections to which I have always presumed myself to be entitled are far more fragile than I'd ever realized.

Today is my first visceral taste of the anxiety I know other Americans—citizen children of undocumented parents, African-Americans pulled over by a police car, American Muslims on planes—have experienced for much longer in much greater magnitude: the anxiety of knowing your fellow citizens view you with suspicion, and you are at their mercy. All that fear is starting to rush into me, too, and I don't know how to cope with it. 

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