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When synagogues and grocery stores are sites of butchery: The vulnerable lives of Trump’s America

Hate is on the rise in the United States, and the last few weeks have made that undeniable.

The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services recently announced its plan to “define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” according to The New York Times, which could effectively render transgender, non-binary, and agender identities legally void.

Last week, a series of pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democrats, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by a militant supporter of President Donald Trump.

On Oct. 24, a white supremacist, in an apparent hate crime, shot and killed two black grocery store customers in Kentucky but refrained from targeting white people because “whites don’t shoot whites.”

On Oct. 27, a fervent xenophobic anti-Semite invaded a Pittsburgh synagogue and massacred 11 Jewish Americans as they were observing Shabbat, later telling law enforcement: “I just want to kill Jews.”

On top of it all, these tragic events come on the heels of Trump’s senseless, racist fearmongering about the “caravan” of migrants who have courageously escaped the violence of Honduras, and the president’s recent preposterous announcement that he plans to end U.S. birthright citizenship via an executive order.

The broad-based hate that is plaguing American life is no accident. Such increasing hate is a product of a sociopolitical environment, led by Trump, that has renormalized and weaponized racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. 

It is no coincidence that hate crimes have substantially increased since the 2016 presidential election; the campaign and subsequent election of Trump enabled the simmering hate and white supremacy of American life to boil over into the political mainstream. Trump, more than any other modern presidential candidate, explicitly appealed to the worst instincts of the nation’s body politic — and, in the process, further endangered the lives of Americans living on the margins.

Not surprisingly, as president, he has doubled down on his white-nationalist ideology. Through words and actions, he has attacked Latino immigrants, women, Muslims, journalists, black people, poor people, Jews, LGBTQ+ people, and, not to mention, the rule of law, basic human decency, and American democracy itself.

While the president’s moral destruction is the most active ingredient in the increasing white-nationalist terror plaguing the country, everyday Americans” are also responsible for this destruction. As much as it is politically taboo to criticize “the American people,” Trump is simply a product of the hatred and ignorance of much of the country’s electorate. At a time when national unity is vital, we must first address why such unity is so hard to achieve, which necessitates an interrogation of the hate-motivated violence of run-of-the-mill Americans; although they are not the only ones who commit these acts, white Americans, given our disproportionately substantial history of hatred and supremacist politics, must be the focus of this interrogation.

As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has explained multiple times, racial terror against black people — and other nonwhite populations — has often been at the hands of “working-class” white Americans. This demographic, much like white populations across the class spectrum, as Coates put it, has been erroneously rendered “blameless” for supporting the racist fascism of Trump.

It wasn’t bombastic white billionaires from Manhattan who slaughtered Emmett Till; lynched Jesse Washington; massacred nine black people attending a Bible study; drove Sandra Bland to hang herself in a Texas jail cell; slayed Trayvon Martin, whose only crime was being a black male carrying Skittles; gang-raped and murdered Brandon Teena for being trans; pistol-whipped and left for dead Matthew Shepard because he was gay, and on and on.

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These atrocities were committed by ordinary white people.

In short, presidents did not throw joyous afternoon picnics and hoist their amused five-year-old daughters on top of their shoulders to give them a better view at the sites of lynchings. Rather, everyday white people — men and women, adults and children, teachers and lawyers, police officers and firefighters, ministers and doctors — led these spectacles of genocidal-mob butchery. Therefore, if you’re looking to root out hatred in the United States, start on Main Street, not Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some may say — understandably — that amid national tragedy, bringing up these societal ills only stokes further division among Americans. And importantly, as a white male who goes to Princeton and who, for the most part, has been insulated from the worst instincts of everyday Americans and the victimization they perpetrate, I am not the ideal messenger for this issue, to say the least. 

Nonetheless, I think for all Americans to heal and unite in this moment of tragedy, people who, intentionally or accidentally, obtain unwarranted hegemonic power in our society must acknowledge their complicity in the dehumanization of the “other” in U.S. life, a dehumanization that, right now, seems viciously acute.

Of course, most white Americans are not “bad” people. But all white people — including, of course, myself — must more thoroughly consider how our whiteness continues to be weaponized to subjugate and, in some cases, murder those marginalized by white hegemony. Unity, for it to be genuine, does not involve whitewashing differences of human identity and social location. On the contrary, unity necessitates coming to terms with how supremacist identities and social locations have perpetrated violence and systematic dispossession; it also necessitates moving forward by consistently acknowledging this fact. 

Before we celebrate our common humanity, we must examine why, for most of U.S. history, so many people were not considered human enough to be celebrated.

All in all, Trump has, time and time again, proven himself fundamentally incapable of exuding moral leadership and uniting Americans across lines of identity and ideology — even in times of grave national crisis, like the moment we are living through right now.

Instead of turning to a politics of solidarity and hope, Trump has employed a politics of cynicism and a white-identity politics that aims to sow further racial division and violently subvert the humanity of those outside the orthodoxy of heteronormative, male-centric, Christian-passing whiteness. Thus, at this time, we must look elsewhere — that is, beyond the Oval Office — for national unity, empathy, and hope. I think we must start by looking for these things within ourselves.

Samuel Aftel is a junior from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at