New York attorney Gregory Locke boarded the subway last Friday night and was appalled by what he saw. Every window in the car, every advertisement and map, had been defaced with a swastika. And there were slogans, such as “Jews belong in the oven.”
“The train was silent,” he said in his Facebook post about it, “as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’ He found some tissues and got to work. I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purel. Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone.
“Nazi symbolism. On a public train. In New York City. In 2017.
“I guess this is Trump’s America,” said one passenger. No sir, it’s not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.”
Two Americas. Using the same subway car in close succession on a Friday night in February, each leaving their mark. Each with something very important to say to us.
First, consider the swastika drawers, who were not very good at it — they inadvertently drew the sacred Hindu character for “good fortune” (it has to be tilted 45 degrees to the right to become the Nazi icon). But that’s an important thing to understand about haters and bigots: they’re not very good at anything.
One of the first courses I took in Sociology 101 taught me an invaluable lesson I have never forgot. It was a study of inter-racial relations among the (primarily Vietnamese) shrimp fishermen and the people of South Florida. The study found a strong, direct and inverse relationship between the state of the local economy and the quality of the interactions among ethnic groups. When times were good people were tolerant and welcomed diversity. The worse the economy became, the more bigotry appeared, and if it got bad enough there were outbreaks of violence.
Everything I have seen in the ensuing decades has confirmed for me the simple fact that people choose racism primarily when they are experiencing financial hardship, and want — no, need — someone to blame. Some “other” kind of person. easily identifiable as an enemy. The worse the hardship, the more violent, widespread and prolonged the expressions of blame/hate.
Is this Trump’s America? Yes and no. It is remarkable that hate crimes, including attacks on synagogues and mosques, and the defacing of public spaces with swastikas, have increased dramatically since his election. But it would be a serious mistake to attribute this only to him and the people who voted for him.
Despite what they say, political leaders do not run the economy, they cannot “create jobs” or “bring back industries.” They cannot make better the severe conditions that bring out in us our impulses to blame and punish. What they can do is summon us to our best efforts, to our better natures, to the rational tolerance and good will that tamp down our more hateful urges.
Or they can do what tyrants and would-be tyrants do. By encouraging the notion that we are experiencing hard times because of the Jews/Mexicans/Muslims/terrorists, the WBT (Would Be Tyrant) can more easily make the case that he, and he alone, can save us. All we have to do is give him the power. Unrestrained, absolute power. Beyond energizing his supporters to bristle at the “others,” the WBT also enables — by hinting, repeating, winking, implying, berating and just saying — many others to allow barely-restrained frustration to blow sky high.
In my own neighborhood last week a young mother described on Facebook how her (colored) child was suddenly berated in a public place by another (white) child, a total stranger, and told to go back where he came from because nobody wants him here. The white child’s grandmother corrected the white child, not for being rude or expressing racism, but because “we don’t say those things outside the house.”
Don’t worry, little precious, soon you may be able to say all those things everywhere, while decorating everything with swastikas, when it truly is Trump’s America.
But maybe not. Consider the second group of people on the subway car, with their tissues and hand sanitizers. They live in the America that I have always lived in and loved, and they have signaled their determination to keep it. I wonder if we can.