Prejudice is a dangerous thing. But so is the rhetoric that emboldens it

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President Donald J. Trump receives a briefing on the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

By Jacqueline Hyman
Former editor-in-chief
@jacqbh58

 

I’m not going to delve deeply into my personal feelings about Saturday’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that killed 11 people. All I will say is that I was overwhelmingly emotional while ruminating on this tragedy, an attack against my people. Not only am I hurt and outraged for the Squirrel Hill community; I also feel nervous and unsafe thinking about my future visits to synagogues. This is just one of many aspects of my life that feels unsafe due to gun violence these days.

Something else, though, sparked my anger as I read news updates this weekend. Hours after the shooting, President Donald Trump said, “This was an anti-Semitic act … there must be no tolerance for anti-Semitism in America or for any form of religious or racial hatred or prejudice.”

Though I completely agree with this statement, I immediately wondered why Trump can so easily recognize this violent act as an anti-Semitic one, yet fail to acknowledge the shooting of unarmed black teenagers and men as racist. If Trump truly believes no form of “racial hatred or prejudice” should be tolerated in the U.S., why won’t he call out the biases and actions that unfairly target black Americans?

Rhetoric is one of the most powerful tools any person can yield. It can influence people in positive and negative directions if persuasive enough. Some of the lowest moments in history have been possible because of rhetoric that instilled an “us vs. them” fear in a majority group. During World War II, U.S. propaganda demonizing the Japanese led to the internment of Japanese Americans. In the 1960s, this sort of rhetoric from Southern politicians resulted in brutal beatings of nonviolent protesters. And when Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, he and his administration used hateful rhetoric that rationalized the later massacre of six million Jews.

What we don’t say is just as important as what we do say. By avoiding the use of the word “racist” to describe shootings of unarmed black Americans, Trump is minimizing not only the issue of police brutality, but also the victims’ lives. He is giving more credence to hate against Jews than hate against blacks and other racial minorities in the country. Why is that? Is it because most Jews in America have lighter skin than those of other minorities? I hate to be so cynical, but unfortunately this is where my mind goes now.

Trump tweeted Saturday, “We must unite to conquer hate.” He is not wrong, but he is hypocritical. For someone who believes unification is key, he sure spreads a lot of hate. Trump has been negatively vocal about many groups of people, from women to immigrants. This 2015 list from CNN covers most of the bases.

If you think words are harmless, I urge you to reconsider that viewpoint. Think about the people of whom Trump has been critical, and the ways they have been violently targeted. His top Democratic opponents and CNN were set to receive bombs and suspicious packages in the mail last week. Even after this, Trump blamed the news media.

He has been adamant about the “fake news” phenomenon plaguing the nation, discrediting real, reliable sources as nothing more than a ploy to discredit the press. In June, five journalists were killed in The Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. Trump calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” a phrase typically used by dictators like Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong to stigmatize opponents or whole groups, according to The Washington Post.

People who violently act on their prejudice (on a large scale) may be the minority, but just look how much damage one person can do.

On Oct. 24, there was a shooting in Louisville, Kentucky. Two African-Americans were killed at a Kroger Supermarket, which is being investigated as a hate crime. The suspect reportedly said to a white bystander, “I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t kill whites.”

This event was unfortunately overshadowed in the news cycle by the bomb threats and synagogue shooting, but as it pushes its way into national reports, something is missing: a comment or response from Trump. He visited Squirrel Hill Tuesday, but has not visited Louisville following the shooting there.

As a human being and a Jew, my heart is breaking for the Squirrel Hill and Louisville communities. I’m heartbroken for the American Jewish community, which I’ve grown up in for my entire life. And my heart is breaking for our nation, because I cannot bear to hear this divisive rhetoric and watch it tear us apart in times we should be united. I just hope Trump will soon hear the rhetoric of the angry and hopeful American people, loud and clear.

Jacqueline is pursuing a masters of education in secondary English. She can be contacted at jbhyman@terpmail.umd.edu.

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