Is the United States a Racist Nation?

Walter Rhein by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Before the 2016 election, I had faith in my fellow Americans. I thought they’d see what Trump represented. It’s been a hard truth to recognize that Trump didn’t win despite being a racist, he won because he is a racist.

My wife is an immigrant from Lima, Peru. Leading up to the election, we kept seeing articles that used the word “immigrant” as a pejorative. My friends would post disparaging comments about immigrants and I’d ask them, “You know my wife is an immigrant don’t you?”

“Oh, we mean illegal immigrants.”

But somehow, as time went on, they dropped “illegal” and it became a chorus of hatred, and eventually they began looking me in the eye as they chanted, “immigrant, immigrant, immigrant.”

There are those that argue with you when you say all people deserve dignity. Those people have become louder lately.

Speaking out

We didn’t speak out too much back then, and I look back on that attitude with shame. Our institutions have conditioned us not to speak out. You aren’t supposed to discuss politics and religion. If your racist grandfather goes on a rant during Thanksgiving dinner, you are just supposed to endure it.

“It’s not worth ruining the holiday over an attitude that will never change.”

Nobody ever seems to recognize that when racists are allowed to speak, the holiday is ruined anyway.

We didn’t really think Trump could win. He was so clearly incompetent, so clearly corrupt, so clearly selfish and evil. Our fellow Americans had to be able to see that didn’t they?

We cried on the night he won. My wife works with underprivileged individuals, and her phone lit up. People were terrified. They thought the police were already on their way to arrest them. We had to remind them that Trump wouldn’t take office until January and there was time to prepare.

It didn’t start with Trump

I remember moving with my wife to the United States in 2009. We flew into Miami. All of our papers were in order, everything was legal, we’d spent six months going through the process of getting visas and making plans. There shouldn’t have been any issues.

Yet, I was terrified.

My wife was calm and she thought I was being strange. Now I see that even then I knew how racist the United States is. I knew it, but I’d never admitted it to myself. Even with a legitimate visa and all our affairs in order, I was beside myself with terror that some government official would do something to my wife.

We entered Miami and they had my wife in a room for four hours. Finally, she emerged with a look of annoyance on her face. She was used to long bureaucratic delays from dealing with business in her own country. The government is slow everywhere. But this wasn’t bureaucracy. The border agents had the documents, they had computers, there was no reason to stall.

We left the airport for our hotel and I collapsed and trembled. I was terrified. My body knew what my conscious mind could not accept. We had taken a tremendous risk. There are people in the United States in positions of power that hate anyone who does not have white skin. I knew it. I have always known it.

American exceptionalism

There is no real discussion in our country about the problems that we have to solve. If you bring up a criticism you are attacked without mercy. People accuse you of “hating the country.” They accuse you of being “ungrateful.”

“This is the greatest country in the world!”

They say it over and over and over. You aren’t allowed to question it, just like you aren’t allowed to tell your racist grandpa to shut up at Thanksgiving, even when he calls out your Latina wife by name. Somehow they’ve corrupted the narrative to the point where they sincerely believe it’s you that has made a transgression.

“We don’t talk about that.”

We don’t really discuss slavery. Thomas Jefferson had children with a slave he owned named Sally Hemings. As a slave, Sally Hemings wasn’t empowered to give consent. What does that make Thomas Jefferson? People bristle when you say the word.

There are atrocities in the history of our nation that would make you physically ill just to hear about. J. Marion Sims performed unanesthetized surgeries on Black women. He’s hailed today as the father of modern gynecology, and not as an inhuman monster who inflicted unimaginable pain on women and tortured them to death. There are statues of the man.

We don’t talk about that.

What is wrong with us?

Violent nation

The United States is inhumanely violent. I’ve lived abroad. People don’t get into bar fights in other countries like they do here. In Peru, I saw one bar fight in ten years. Back when I was in college in the US, I’d see a bar fight every night I went out.

I thought that was normal. It’s not.

Why are we so violent? It’s like the whole country has a deeply rooted rage and frustration that has settled into their bones. We know we are forced to acknowledge something that isn’t true. The conflict festers deep within us. Frustration boils over.

Living a lie is poison to the soul.

The police kill too many people. Why do we tolerate that? The police don’t kill their citizens in other countries. If you say, “The police shouldn’t kill anyone,” people in the US look at you like you’re nuts. These are the same people that live in terror every day that the police will come and take their guns, but they actually accept and defend that the police have a need to kill people.

The controlled narrative

Our nation is 25 trillion dollars in debt, our people slaughter each other, a serious illness guarantees bankruptcy, you can’t afford an education for your children anymore, yet we’re supposed to prance around and feel nothing but pride in our country. If you point out the flaws, you are shunned.

We aren’t supposed to talk about things that we know are wrong. It’s not considered proper decorum. If you offer a criticism, you trip the mechanism of a giant steel trap. “How dare you!” “How ungrateful!” “How unpatriotic!”

We hold our tongues like people stuck in a relationship with an abusive partner. We’ve all been conditioned not to speak out. But we know something is wrong. Our bodies have an involuntary response to danger. Our heart rate accelerates, our muscles become infused with adrenaline.

We have to speak out

We can’t afford to be quiet anymore. We can’t afford to sit back and believe authority figures when they tell us to behave, or they demand that we follow some outdated set of rules for appropriate interaction and behavior.

The United States is racist.

The racism has been emboldened by Donald Trump. But Trump's humiliating defeat will not solve the problem, we can’t become lulled into complacency.

People need to speak out. We must denounce racism by name. Perhaps that means alienating your racist grandpa and ruining Thanksgiving. Perhaps it means offending your coworkers. Perhaps it means losing contact with individuals you thought were your friends.

If they are racists, then they were never your friends.

We have to demand better than this, we can’t become complicit in allowing this racist nation to persist unchecked. There will be consequences for speaking out, but those consequences aren’t nearly as severe as what you bring upon yourself by remaining silent.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI

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