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[The following remarks were delivered at the conference “After George Floyd: America’s Racial Reckoning” of the International Psychohistorical Association, August 31, 2020]

Our Racial Reckoning

Charles Gourgey, Ph.D.

An undocumented immigrant from Honduras in a Texas detention center was breast-feeding her baby daughter, when federal officials snatched the infant out of her arms. When the mother tried to resist, they handcuffed her.

In a Tucson courtroom a Guatemalan woman, forcibly separated from her two young sons, asked when she would see them again. She received no response.

A Honduran man whose child was forcibly taken from him suffered a breakdown in his detention cell and began punching the walls. In the morning he was found dead on the cell floor in a pool of blood with a piece of clothing twisted around his neck.

And Jeff Sessions quoted from the Bible to justify these actions.

What we are seeing now is not really new. Family separation was just one tool used in this country to terrorize and control a nonwhite population. As was the exploitation of scripture to justify it.

The calculated use of cruelty is a hallmark of this administration. It recalls this country’s treatment of the Black “other” through Reconstruction and back to slavery. It is no coincidence that Trump calls Confederate generals “heroes” and his supporters call them “forefathers.” He is appealing to the Confederate spirit, which lay dormant but not dead, and which empowered itself by keeping Black people permanently subordinate. This part of our national heritage assumes white entitlement and white supremacy as unquestionably given. It thrives on valuing cruelty for its own sake, taking sadistic measures against people to demoralize them and drain their will to resist.

And yet what besets us now is so much more than a Confederate revival. Trump knows that people can be induced to vote against their own best interests if galvanized by fear of a greater, if imaginary threat. If immigrants are MS13 and Black people are looters and anarchists, and if only Trump can “fix” it, then keeping him in power might be worth losing our health care, needlessly sacrificing thousands of lives to COVID, and endangering our national security.

How does an agenda of hate attract such a large following? Hannah Arendt called it the “banality of evil.” One need not perpetrate physical violence, be a card-carrying neo-Nazi, or a member of the Klan to participate. Many good, ordinary people have become part of the evil gripping this country. All it takes is a suspension of critical thinking and a willingness to be ruled by fear. Once that is accomplished, we can even embrace cruelty as a virtue.

How else to explain the survival of Donald Trump, when others fell by the wayside for much pettier offenses? Gary Hart was knocked out of presidential contention for having an affair. Howard Dean was terminated for screaming too loud. Donald Trump not only brags about abusing women, he betrays our friends and sides with our enemies, lies every time he opens his mouth, deploys armed forces against peaceful civilians on American soil, and overtly tries to sabotage the upcoming election, yet he is still a serious threat to win a second term.

Only the expert mobilization of fear can explain it.

The Republican Convention last week was a masterful exercise in lying raised to the level of a fine art. Practically every speech delivered a string of falsehoods and fabrications. Sycophantic speakers portrayed Trump as kind, empathetic, compassionate, concerned about every citizen, even the weak and the most vulnerable a Pygmalionesque remake of Trump’s image to the point of unrecognizability. The apparent purpose was to manufacture a complete but false reality with a virtuous Trump playing a messianic role.

But there was one thing neither Trump’s fan club nor Trump himself felt any need to make over or conceal: Trump’s hatred of peaceful demonstrators who he denied are really peaceful, and “illegal” immigrants seeking asylum to save their lives. Trump knows his audience, and his vows to crack down even harder on these groups of nonwhite people earned him a standing ovation.

We have seen autocrats target marginalized groups of people many times in history; we know where that leads, and now we are a part of that history. We need to expose and wrestle with our fears. We need a higher value that can replace those fears, reaching out, not shutting out the other. We cannot begin to explore what this would entail in just these few minutes. But in conclusion, I would indicate as a guidepost words that have inspired people for thousands of years, and that might help us begin contemplating a path toward reform.

“The stranger who would live with you must be as one of your own; and you will love that person as yourself, for you too once were strangers.” (Leviticus 19:34)

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)

“Behold, we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” (Qur’an 49:13)

Thank you.