Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey was the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
I must admit it. I thought it would be a white Trump supporter, thought it had to be a white Trump supporter. That was my knee-jerk reaction to the latest example in a long, seemingly never-ending string of spasms of everyday public hate. This one involved a 91-year-old Mexican man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, who had been beaten bloody with a concrete block by a woman in Southern California, who according to a witness, was screaming at him to “Go back to your country; go back to Mexico.” A week after the incident, 30-year-old Laquisha Jones was arrested in Los Angeles for the attack.
When I first heard about the story, an image of the assailant popped into my head: a middle-aged white woman wearing a MAGA hat yelling through lungs filled with gunk from years of chain smoking. But I was wrong. An eyewitness who recorded the attack said the woman was black, and that, once the man was on the ground, a group of men beat on him, too.
I thought it had to be a white Trump supporter because I remember during the 2016 election cycle when two white men in Boston bragged about beating a Hispanic homeless man in Donald Trump’s honor, with Trump initially seemingly condoning it, with a quip that his supporters were just passionate people. I remember the young black woman being literally pushed out of a Trump rally and the black man sucker-punched by an older white man in a different rally and Trump saying he’d pay the legal bills for those who attacked protesters.
But the reality is that the toxic rhetoric that enables everyday hate does not discriminate by race or political persuasion; it’s about an “us vs. them” mentality, and all it takes for violence to happen is for someone to believe they’re a part of the “us” and it’s okay to attack the “them.” I don’t know if Jones is a Trump supporter, given that, though there are few, the President has African-American fans. That matters less than my mistaken, automatic assumption that it had to be someone of a different tribe long before I knew the details. That’s where the danger lies. Such assumptions will convince us to excuse the ugly actions of those in the “us” category while leaving us feeling comfortable demonizing those among the “them.”
There have been so many ugly incidents the past couple of years, it’s hard to keep up with them all. But they keep happening. Of late, in addition to the beating of Mr. Rodriguez, these hateful incidents include the harassing of Mia Irizarry in an Illinois park for the sin of wearing a sleeveless red, white and blue T-shirt with the words “Puerto Rico” on it.
Irizarry recorded the June 14 incident on her phone, saying she felt threatened, and posted the video to Facebook. “You should not be wearing that in the United States of America,” Timothy G. Trybus, who would be later arrested for assault and disorderly conduct, told her.
“Are you a citizen? Are you a United States citizen?” the man continued, apparently unaware that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. In the video, Irizarry can be heard making that point.
That incident was made worse by the presence of a police officer who did not intervene, even though the man repeatedly approached and taunted Irizarry, who had to back away several times. Irizarry is audible in the video saying, “Officer, I feel entirely uncomfortable” and “I do not feel comfortable with him here, is there anything you can do?”
“Living While Black” incidents, including a recent one where a white woman called the police because a 12-year-old boy accidentally cut a few feet of grass in her yard while he was mowing another yard for his business, have become too numerous too count. And on the extreme end, when incidents of everyday hate lead to fatal or near-lethal violence, such events become so painful as to be numbing.
This is not the first time such things have happened in this country. Violence stoked by division and fear didn’t begin with the political rise of Donald Trump. Hate crimes have been increasing for the past four years, which includes the end of the Obama era. In fact, things have been much worse, something we should remember to maintain a sense of perspective. There were bombings and terror incidents in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and Timothy McVeigh’s and Eric Rudolph’s actions at Oklahoma City and Atlanta in the 1990s. And the country went through a century of lynchings that included burning black people alive in the public square.
Still, it feels as though we’ve crossed a Rubicon in which our darkest angels have been unleashed, and every day, routine actions can become life-threatening, or life-altering, events. It feels like everyday people, not just crazed or violent men, are allowing their anger to become deadly weapons. Remember, not too long ago, a man slaughtered nearly 60 people in Las Vegas – and injured hundreds more – without such extreme ugliness being able to hold our attention beyond the next headline.
And as the case of Rodolfo Rodriguez shows, it’s not just white people or Trump supporters unleashing their anger – though it must be noted that African-Americans remain the most-likely target of race-based crime, while Jewish Americans are the most-targeted for religious hatred. And it’s not about the lack of a still ill-defined “civility” too many have begun clamoring for, and too many others have prioritized over a righteous thirst for justice (as opposed to the relative calm of the status quo). It’s something we don’t yet understand and don’t yet know how to corral because our divisions, which have long been deep and wide, have been laid bare in recent years in a way they haven’t for quite some time.
That reality will be with us for the foreseeable future. It’s the product of natural growing pains of a country that is changing by the day and making people fearful in ways they’ve never been. But fear is neither a good reason to wantonly hurt strangers nor to blindly give into natural instincts that try to convince us that attacking others – rather than examining ourselves – is the best way to navigate these confusing times.
We must be better than that. We must be.