Hate hurts most when you’re not ready for it, when your thoughts after a brutal political season are of the comfort of home. That’s how hate sliced through me recently on the Long Island Rail Road — suddenly. I spotted it out of the corner of my eye. Two K.K.K. fliers, neatly placed face up, inviting passers-by to collect them. “Our Race Is Our Nation” read the banner on one, with a white-hooded figure peering out through slits where eyes should be, his arms folded defiantly behind the safety of symbol and disguise.
The fliers had their intended effect. They hurled me back to that place of self-preservation I constructed as a child. Fold yourself small, don’t call attention, smile, and you may get by. But you’ll never get in. You’ll never fully be accepted as American. Despite your five-generation presence and fancy degrees you’re still asked pointedly or with guarded emphasis, “Where are you from?” The guy in the hoodie is right: This is a nation defined by race.
As I stared at the flier, I thought of Lexi, my 15-year-old great-niece who lives in my hometown in Southern California. Lexi is a smart and curious kid. At 12 she was an autodidact about World War II, inspired in part by having read the poignant novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” She knows more about the rise of fascism and terrors of totalitarianism than I, or maybe it’s all fresher to her because last year her reading list included “Fahrenheit 451.”
Lexi’s mother, my niece, generally leans Christian conservative. Lexi found Bernie Sanders on her own. She was excited about him even before his unlikely candidacy began to take off. A pragmatist, she took to Hillary Clinton after the convention. While I monitored her political education from afar, I hadn’t tracked her response to Donald Trump’s insurgency, it was too remote a possibility to consider.
I shared the K.K.K. flier with Lexi’s mom, who in turn shared it with Lexi. When we spoke with Lexi, I realized her world had been shattered by the election. It is now occupied by terror based on half-accurate assumptions. I recognized in her inchoate trauma my own childhood reaction to the Cuban missile crisis, when headlines balled into nightmares from which I’d wake up too scared to scream.
Lexi is afraid she may be deported because her estranged Cuban-born father may never have taken care of the details of his otherwise legal immigration status and was temporarily detained after a run-in with the law. “I’ve heard some people want to make it so that I could get deported because I’m an anchor baby.” No, I assure her, you are not an “anchor baby.” You are a U.S. citizen by birth and through your mother. The Constitution still stands. Oh, the pain of living under political rumors and half-truths when you’re young and your life is at stake.
“Okay,” she replies softly from the phone, but I sense things remain unsettled. I probe. She answers, “I have friends whose parents are undocumented.” She goes on, “I hear things like, ‘If it ain’t white it ain’t right.’ ”
I look at the K.K.K. flier. I find myself unable to give Lexi much comfort or guidance. I realize we have lost or, at the very least, stunted another generation. Maybe the flier is partly right: Race is our nation.
To steady myself, I try being rational. We live in a world in which fear has been frothed way beyond the rational facts. Wages are up, unemployment down, so domestic economic indicators are solid. The crime rate is generally down. Health care coverage has expanded, albeit imperfectly. Peace exists throughout the Western Hemisphere, indeed throughout the world, with the glaring exception of the raw swaths that cut through the Middle East and eastern Africa. These are among America’s greatest days, our days of greatest potential, but apparently a lot of us don’t see it that way.
To understand why, I reach beyond reason to my emotions, back to my childhood, to get at the despair created by gutted-out industrial sectors in the Midwest, the sense of abandonment in coal territory, the anxiety of family farmers we once held as our American ideal but who now can’t hold on to the farm without an outside job.
My own roots are deep in the working class. My father was a union man who washed the soiled diapers of patients at a large mental institution. My mother a garment worker at a tiny factory that produced itchy gym clothes. Each put in hours after their regular workday to earn enough to make ends meet. Mama stayed on to clean the garment factory; Dad mowed lawns. I know how hard they worked because it was my job to sometimes help them after school. I know how much they worried because I caught my mother behind closed doors, her head hanging while tears formed quietly because there wasn’t enough to carry us through the week. I knew we’d be okay when she got up the next morning at 4:30 to start over again.
I can feel the ache of white opioid-addicted youth in Maine, rural Ohio, or eastern Kentucky. Despair litters their land, just as it did the land of my childhood, in a small, loving, but ultimately dangerous suburban barrio saddled with drugs and gang activity. One of my close family members ran with the gangs and was left overdosed in our front yard.
Despair comes from disaffection, a fact we in communities of color have known for generations. With the devil of addiction now knocking at its own door, white America is finally realizing that we communities of color weren’t socio-pathological after all, we were just human, humans from whom hope and opportunity had been systematically withheld, just as our impoverished white brothers and sisters are discovering has happened to them.
From my now-privileged position I am coming to realize that the fear I saw in the K.K.K. fliers wasn’t just mine, but also that of the people who put the fliers on the seats. It’s a recurrent fear in America. The Klan has come and gone in cycles. The first was during Reconstruction. The second in the 1920s, when the Klan populated Long Island because of an anti-immigrant backlash — ironically enough aimed at the parents and grandparents of many people the Klan hopes to recruit now, citing the newer wave of immigrants. The third Klan wave was during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. All times of change.
In filming “The State of Arizona,” our documentary about Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers” law, we interviewed a very wise young state legislator. She pointed out that the people who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally had had time to make the emotional journey into change. The communities receiving them hadn’t, however, and so the intensity of their anger could in part be understood by the rapid, unexpected change foisted on them. Her contextualization helped me reframe my perspective then, and I find it useful now as I try to understand the K.K.K. fliers and the sundering of America they are trying to foment.
So, the next time I speak with Lexi, I’ll explain that we, all of us, need to understand that the challenges America is facing aren’t just its transforming features; after all, people of color are also being impacted by the forces of technology and globalization, even more so. I’ll tell her that despite the pain it will take to get past the scapegoating, I hope that I and others like me who have been marginalized and fought for change can reach out and show how change can be accomplished; we’ve done it.
I’ll go on to tell her that the person who left the fliers most likely descends from a brave immigrant who chose change, willingly suffering hardships and upsetting the landscape before them, forging America in the process. Maybe someday they’ll realize that.
Carlos Sandoval is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who lives part time in Amagansett.