Todd Robertson took this picture in 1992 in Gainesville, GA. This past Tuesday, Gainesville’s representative (Doug Collins) stood on the house floor and shouted down Rep. Eric Swalwell as he read off all of the racist comments and actions from Trump (birthirism, comments about a Mexican judge being unable to rule because of his ethnicity, saying immigrants from Mexico are rapists, comments about immigrants from “shithole” countries, telling congresswomen, born in the US or US citizens, to “Go back to your country.”). Collins shouted that Swalwell’s comments were unparliamentary and offensive and should be stricken from the record. Were they? They were Trump’s words, not Swalwell’s.
The next night, in North Carolina, the crowd at a Trump rally chanted “Send her back” after Trump made comments about Rep. Ihan Omar, a US citizen and a Somali immigrant. This scene, and more like it, stoke fear and hatred and teach racism! This is why this image, from Gainesville, stands out to me now.
In “Are We Still Buying a New World with Old Confederate Bill?”, a speech from 1960, Lillian E. Smith wrote,
The Devil knows that if you want to destroy a man, all you need do is fill him with false hopes and false fears. These will blind him to his true direction and he will inevitably turn away from the future and destroy those close to him.
It is as true of a nation: fill its people with false hopes and false fears, and they will do the rest; they will go straight to their appointment with Death; and they will drag all nations friendly to them down into the maelstrom of their moral and mental confusion.
Statements such as those Swalwell quoted from Trump stoke false hope and false fear. False hope and false fear lead to chants of “Send her back.” False hope and false fear blind people from the ways that those who stoke the false hope and false fear deploy it to acquire and maintain power. False hope and false fear lead those chanting to suffer not just psychologically but physically and economically as well. False hope and false fear are tools to create false threats to distract people from the truth. False hope and false fear lead people to “destroy those close to them.”
Here is my question. Do I want my daughter, who became friends with other kids from Norway, to look down on them because they are not from here? Do I want my daughter, who became close friends with other kids from Somalia, Syria, Lithuania, and elsewhere, to look down on them and stop being friends because they are not from America?
No! I do not want my children, or anyone’s children, inculcated with vile hatred stoked by fear so that those in power can maintain their power while giving piss all for those chanting at the rallies.
No! I do not want my children growing up thinking they are better than anyone else.
No! I do not want my children thinking that if they disagree with someone’s ideas that they must belittle and vilify that person.
No! I do not want my children to close themselves off to others because they are afraid of difference.
No! I do not want my children to succumb to mob mentality, in any form.
I want them to see racism and hatred for what it is, poison, death dealing poison that drains the life and light out of them. Poison that not only affects them but affects those that they love and care about. Poison that rots the core of our very existence.
What does it teach a child when a parent uses coded language to refer to African Americans or others?
What does it teach a child to tell someone, “Go back to your country?” Even though that person is from the same country you’re from?
What does it teach a child when a group of students protest the injustice in this country and they get blasted with death threats because they are not “patriotic”?
What does it teach a child when the courts rarely convict individuals of killing African Americans?
What does it teach a child when textbooks claim enslaved individuals were simply “workers,” implying they arrived in American voluntarily?
What does it teach a child when right across the street from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, where Martin Luther King preached, there sits a stone monument commemorating Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as the President of the C.S.A.?
What do these things tell a child? They tell a child that they are “superior” and that rather than looking at the person holding the shield, they only have to look at their own reflection, thus ignoring everybody else and focusing on their own “superiority.”
This is why the past is not past. The methods have morphed and adapted into new forms, and we must confront and challenge these mutations whenever and wherever they appear. We see them every day. Stand up and fight them!
Writing to a high school teacher about education in 1959, Smith pointed out that education does not just occur in the classroom. She tells him that relationships are more important than what occurs in the desks. She writes,
I think all life is learning. If you want to close up, you can close up; but if you open up, you will be bound to learn, to become aware, to reach out for others and toward others. And then, of course, having traveled across the earth. having swung high into the air. I had come to home and go down deep into my own heart and mind and memories and find out what is there; and this is sometime hard learning but beautiful learning too. And then there is always what you learn when you build bridges to other people: to one, then to one more, and on and on.
False hope and false fear do not build bridges; they burn bridges. They close the mind to anything that does not align with the deeply entangled beliefs, shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, insulating themselves to the point of harm. Lillian Smith knew and wrote about the harm that the racism had not just on the oppressed but on the oppressor as well. She was steadfast in freeing herself from the beliefs, or taboos as she called them, that enveloped her, and she continued work to free others from those same beliefs.