A few months after the 2016 election, a student said to me one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever heard. Giovanni came from the humblest origins. As a child, he lived with his Mexican American family in an old taco truck before they moved up to an eighteen-hundred-dollar motor home. He told me about a retired white couple from rural Louisiana, whom I’ll call Walter and Lee Ann Jones, who lived in the same Texas trailer park as Giovanni’s family. According to Giovanni, the Joneses were extremely kind from day one:
“Walter helped us set up the taco truck and would bring my sister and me sweets from the local food pantry, where he volunteered to haul food with his pickup truck. Multiple Thanksgivings, Walter ensured my family had a turkey and sides to cook, which he also brought from the pantry. Walter also loved guns and made it known that he would protect us if anyone caused any trouble. ‘There’s a lot of bad people here, but I dare them to try and mess with you. They will regret it.’”
But a decade later, during the 2016 election cycle, Giovanni realized, based on a number of social media posts made by the Joneses, that Walter and Lee Ann held strongly racist attitudes. In Giovanni’s view, however, the Joneses exemplify “a critical paradox that progressives often overlook or dismiss, to their own detriment.” Despite their racist attitudes toward “faceless brown people generally,” the Joneses “treat my family with nothing but love and respect, despite our Mexican descent and immigrant status. In fact, the Joneses even consider my sister and me to be their adoptive-grandkids. Furthermore, the food pantry where Walter volunteered primarily served the black community. On multiple occasions, I observed first-hand the joy it brought Walter to help these communities.”
I found Giovanni’s story striking first because he was talking about racism in a way that is completely taboo among progressives (a group he identifies with). Among progressives, once someone is deemed racist, that’s it. You can’t talk to him, you can’t compromise, and you certainly can’t suggest that he might be a decent person just because he’s nice to a few minorities. (Liberal eyes start rolling as soon as the “racist” mentions his “black friends.”) I also found the story striking because of a further insight Giovanni offered: the Joneses didn’t think of themselves as racists. In their minds, “the countless iterations of treating minorities with decency and kindness is undeniable evidence that they are not racist.” As a result, when liberals call them “bigots,” they feel unjustly attacked, creating a chasm of anger. “When the conviction that they are morally blameless clashes with liberal outrage, it drives a wedge between elite progressives and the working-class people they ostensibly desire to help.”
Finally, I found the story remarkable because it reflected a generosity in scarce supply these days. In case it’s not clear, the Joneses were Trump supporters, whereas Giovanni viewed Trump as a deep, visceral threat to his family and his community. Yet he was willing to reach across the tribal divide, out of a belief in a shared humanity and a sense of coming from the same place, the same America — in Giovanni’s case, a trailer park in Texas where people helped one another get by.
If we’re to come together as a nation, we all need to elevate ourselves. We need to find a way to talk to each other if we’re to have any chance of bridging divides. We need to allow ourselves to see our tribal adversaries as fellow Americans, engaged in a common enterprise.
Those who are worried about terrorism should be able to express that worry without being branded an Islamophobe. Those who view America’s seismic demographic changes and massive influx of immigrants with anxiety should be able to express that anxiety without being branded a racist. Transformational population change is dislocating, and diversity has costs. But we’ve been through this before. Over and over, throughout American history, waves of new immigrants have come to our shores, always met with suspicion and fear that the nation’s character will be endangered, its streets made unsafe, its values lost. Every time, we’ve overcome this fear, prospered, and grown stronger.
Transformational population change is dislocating, and diversity has costs. But we’ve been through this before.
With every wave of immigration in the past, American freedom and openness have triumphed. Will we, telling ourselves “These immigrants are different,” be the weak link, the first generation to fail? Will we forget who we are?
At the same time, those committed to exposing the grotesque injustices of America’s past and present— they are right too, and doing us all a service. No country can be great if it can’t be honest, and America, in particular, with its resounding constitutional principles, needs to be held to its own standards or fall under the weight of hypocrisy. But other generations seeking justice have done so for the promise of America. Even as James Baldwin lacerated the “collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes,” he made clear that his dream was to “achieve our country,” “to make America what America must become,” for “great men have done great things here, and will again.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that African Americans sitting at whites-only lunch counters were “standing up for the best in the American dream.”
No country can be great if it can’t be honest, and America, in particular, with its resounding constitutional principles, needs to be held to its own standards or fall under the weight of hypocrisy.
At a service honoring Dr. King, President Barack Obama said of the leaders of the civil rights movement, “[A]s much as our Government and our political parties had betrayed them in the past, as much as our Nation itself had betrayed its own ideals... [t]hey didn’t give up on this country... Imperfect as it was, they continued to believe in the promise of democracy, in America’s constant ability to remake itself, to perfect this Union.”
This is an excerpt from "Political Tribes" by Amy Chua, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Amy Chua.