I was supposed to be a racist, or at least I have lived a life that without a few unexpected turns would have made me one of the millions of Trump supporters who think that it’s white people getting a raw deal in America these days. I can’t say that I have sympathy for the position, but when I puzzle over the state of the nation, I can’t help but think to myself there but for the grace of God go I.
I have always been a news junkie. When I was a kid in Cedar City, Utah, that meant Rush Limbaugh (the radio show and the newsletter), or Michael Reagan, or NRA mailers, or GOP literature. My parents started watching Fox as soon as it existed as far as I know, though the timing is becoming fuzzy nearly 20 years later. We listened to NPR for the music and the local radio for the news, and we watched nightly news broadcasts out of Salt Lake City and shook our heads wondering why anyone would live in a place so full of crime and dissipation. I don’t know much about the changing of the media landscape before I became a teenager, but by the 90s “if it bleeds, it leads” was canon for most news broadcasts. It gave me a distorted understanding of risk and violence and what population density might do to a human soul, watching all this and comparing it to my local newspaper, which was usually filled with human interest stories and local school sports.
Mormons, particularly Utah Mormons, have an odd relationship with governance. The Church is uniquely American, having been founded in the early 19th century, and there is a great amount of pride in that fact. But we are raised to remember that our children were massacred by a state-sanctioned mob, that a territorial army was raised against us to stop us from worshiping, that we were driven out of America over and over again and pushed ever more westward. I left the church years ago, but my distrust of centralization is rooted in the generational awareness that only local governance can keep a populace safe, that if you let strangers rule you from a distance they will come to kill you sooner or later.
We were not a household that approved of Bill Clinton. It wasn’t the blow job, though that didn’t play well. The perjury played worse, but the problem was really Nafta and the weapons ban and the vague sense that liberal thought was the gateway drug to communism (which was, for people who had seen the wall come down not long before, not an abstract fear.) I absorbed all this as a teenager, took in the rhetoric about how we were becoming a godless nation full of deviants and criminals when even the President of the United States would commit obstruction and then not have the basic decency to resign like Nixon did so we could get on with governing.
Underneath it all, there was a constant input of information: white kids were starting to fall behind in test scores, white incomes were starting to drop in real terms, white men were being feminized in the workplace, white women had to go to work just to support a family that 30 years before would have been fine on a single income.
Immigrants were taking jobs, gays were haunting public bathrooms, black men were mostly okay unless they were super-predators or leaving their kids. Religiosity was being forced out of the public square by atheists and secular humanists. The problem, always, was that we had forgotten how to work hard and live peaceably, that everyone thought they were a victim of something instead of just getting to work to fix their lives.
It wasn’t just the media: my dad would grudgingly hand it to Clinton when he talked about welfare dependency and the need for people to go find work instead of relying on the government. Tipper Gore’s crusade for parental advisory warnings on CDs finally declared victory. Newt Gingrich, third in line for the presidency as Speaker, taught me about “affirmative racism.” He said things like “it is antithetical to the American dream to measure people by the genetic pattern of their great-grandmothers.”
I internalized that last. I have never believed that ethnic or racial discrimination was a net good, nor do I believe that most Americans do. It’s just that I was never told about white supremacy any more than anyone else was, in our county that was 93% white. I learned about Manifest Destiny and slavery and I told myself that I’d damn well have fought for the Union if I’d been alive back then, and if I’d been one of the Mormon pioneers crossing to Zion I would have been happy to trade and share land with the Paiutes (who were definitely there first.)
When it came time to go to college, I looked at lists of scholarships: one for English, one for Pacific Islander kids, one for drama, one for Hispanic kids. There weren’t scholarships for white people. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps English and drama were the white-kid scholarships. I had no more than a vague idea what poverty meant outside of a rural context, where money doesn’t really matter because everyone in the whole county goes to the same high school and has the same chance to learn as everyone else does. It wasn’t until my twenties that I learned about property taxes and school districts and redlining and de facto segregation.
And besides, I’d been told that affirmative action was merely a good impulse gone too far. I grew up watching the Cosby show and basketball and sneaking glimpses of MTV when I was at a friend’s house: I knew quite well that these days black people could be as wealthy as white ones. I didn’t mind helping balance the scales, but I honestly believed that task had been managed by generations before me.
It wasn’t until years later, until I had been quite poor in cities all over the country - which usually meant I was the only white girl on the block - that I understood that I had been lied to. By my government, by the media, by my culture; and there was no law that said you had to teach people true things. There still isn’t. Donald Trump is the logical next step for a country that indulges itself in mass delusion to keep up appearances, and his supporters are saturated in all the same justifications and half-truths that I grew up with.
There is no such thing as meritocracy in America, no such things as justice or fairness. There is only this fantasy I was taught to believe, this thing I was taught to chase and strive for. It is a fantasy we keep selling - Sinclair buys up more broadcasters and pushes out propaganda spots, ClearChannel keeps buying radio stations and filling the airwaves with the harsh voices of poison polemic, TimeWarner and News Corp buy up local papers and force conservative op-eds into your friendly local paper.
The story of racism in America has always been partially a story of narrative and information. Yes, it is inevitable in this media environment and this culture that millions of Americans would believe that white people are the ones who have a rough go of it. Our towns are crumbling, our suicide rates are through the roof, our young people are dying at rates not seen since Vietnam - only there’s no draft this time, just the sickly sweet temptation of drifting away for a while to forget your pain.
But I have Newt Gingrich to thank for teaching me that nobody should ever be held back because of what color their grandparents were. It’s why I believe we have to talk about the fact that people’s grandparents (unless they were white) weren’t allowed to go to college, or get good jobs, or buy nice houses, or begin to build the generational wealth that might mean that we could forget about the color of our skin. It’s why we need affirmative action, because it’s not a feel-good policy but a way to actively even the playing field for the sins of a few generations ago - and the ones we continue to commit today. It is the very, utterly, shamefully least we could do if we’re not going to stop teaching people lies about how America works.
I’m probably still a lot racist. But I hope I’m learning better, and in the mean time I do not want anyone else punished for my lack of knowledge. There, but for the grace of God, go I.