My father served for more than 60 years as secretary of the University Kiwanis Club in Seattle. It wasn’t his profession. It was his passion. He saw it as his way to give back to the community and do good in the world. In 1977 he was chosen by Kiwanis as the “Man of the Half-Century,” an honor that brought tears to his eyes. He was a “good man” in the eyes of his community and his family. I loved him, but…
Last week, in sorting through family pictures and memorabilia I ran across a letter he wrote to my godparents in 1960. It was written after he and my mother returned from a trip to New Orleans and Miami. Near the end of the letter he wrote:
“If you ever go to New Orleans let me know as I know all the strippers by their first names. We got quite a kick out of the French Quarter. Miami Beach you can have. I have never seen so many Jews in my life. I don’t know why they wanted a country of their own as they have one in Florida.”
My father was a bigot. Respectful and polite in public, he was a bigoted white man who privately referred to blacks as “coons” and Jews as “kikes.” He didn’t believe blacks, Jews and Indians were entitled to Constitutional protections. He forbad me to have a black friend (I’ve written about this before) and thought Jews were going to “jew us” out of our rightful heritage.
I want to believe that were he alive today, his racism and bigotry would have been replaced by an honest recognition that he was wrong. Even in his time, decency would have led him to regard today’s Donald Trump as vulgar and unfit for the presidency. Even so, he might have voted for him, but I’m quite certain he would never have voted for Barack Obama. His racism was too deeply ingrained to vote for a black president.
That was the home environment I grew up in. I loved my parents but hated their prejudice. In high school and college, we had fierce verbal battles about racism, mostly academic for them since they had no contact with black people and only occasional interactions with Jewish “friends.” They lived in a lily-white world, where fear of blacks, Mexicans, and Jews colored their political and social attitudes, although they knew that their son’s friends were a mix of colors and faiths.
On Saturday, a deranged, un-closeted bigot murdered 11 elderly Jewish congregants and injured 6, including 4 police officers who were attempting to halt the slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Earlier in the week, in another part of the country, the FBI was working diligently to uncover the identity of an unhinged bomb-building Trump zealot who mailed 14 pipe-bombs to two former presidents and twelve other Trump critics.
My parents were both college graduates. They’re dead now, but I like to think they would be appalled by these horrific events and outraged that white-supremacy, anti-Semitism, domestic violence, and anti-institutional rhetoric has been allowed to surface, fester and permeate national politics by a president who refuses to condemn their manifestations.
It would be comforting to think that every educated American would condemn this kind of bigotry, but at a time when racial and ethnic animosity is at such a high level it flies in the face of evidence. I have two close friends who have expressed sentiments similar to those my father wrote out in 1960. One friend is a retired teacher and Christian youth leader. The other is a well-respected community leader. Both have expressed anti-Semitic feelings in the course of our conversations. Both would deny it. Such is the nature of an unthinking bias. The teacher often talks about his high school “Jew teammate buddies,” and the community leader friend often criticizes Jewish “friends” but is seemingly unaware that his comments are not-so-veiled anti-Semitism.
Pittsburgh, mail bombs, school shootings, Charlottesville—these are symptoms of America’s poisonous leadership vacuum. Wherever Donald Trump goes and whenever he speaks the message that blares out is “If you’re white, Christian, born here, and love me I will speak for you.” If you are “other” you’re on your own. I will not protect you.
Right now, a group of 3-4000 migrants, mostly from violence-ridden Honduras and El Salvador are walking toward America’s southern border. Trump and his posse are calling them invaders and terrorists, and Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader claimed that their journey is being funded by George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer – not coincidentally all Jewish. This is not a dog-whistle alert. This is blatant anti-Semitism.
My father’s racism and anti-Semitism were reflexes based in fear of the “other.” He tried hard to be a good citizen and was well regarded by his peers. His bigotry was private—shared only with those closest to him. He was not the most powerful man on the planet whose words set the tone for public attitudes and discourse in America. Donald Trump is an uninformed, greedy, self-dealing, provocateur whose only reference is himself – a person who makes tepid references to terrible violent events only when they are scripted by others and read unenthusiastically from a teleprompter when forced by his communications director.
I loved my father–Kiwanis’ “Man of the Half Century”–but I abhorred his bigotry. There is no neutrality when anti-Semitism is present. Silence is complicity. Your vote on November 6 can make a difference. Don’t be complicit.