If you read my blog posts around the 2016 election, you probably thought that I was going to absolutely lose it over the result. However, if you talked to me in person, you knew that I wasn’t sold on the idea that either of the candidates was going to win, even when all the polling and the sentiment around me pointed to Hillary as the odds-on favorite. I even wondered how Donald could possibly win given all the racist, misogynist, and xenophobic things he was saying on the campaign trail. (And what can I say about his vice-presidential candidate and his homophobia and need to pray on whether or not to help stop an HIV epidemic in Indiana?)
Yet, enough people in enough places in the United States went for it and voted Republican. Some voted that way because they couldn’t stand the idea of Hillary as President. Others couldn’t stand the idea of a woman as President. Others are one-issue voters and they saw in Hillary the outright legalization of a lot of things they see as abhorrent, like access to abortion or birth control. And, of course, there were the group of people who listened to the nationalistic rhetoric and liked it.
I want to talk a little bit about those people.
I had the chance this weekend to travel to Nebraska to attend my sister’s high school graduation. An hour before the ceremony started, the high school hosted a hyper-religious service for those families who wanted to attend. The first thing I noticed was that all of the families praying over their young graduates were white. The heavy Latino presence was not yet felt, and the few families who are Somali immigrants/refugees were waiting in the atrium. (I don’t know if they were not allowed to go or didn’t want to. My guess is that they didn’t want to, because it would have been a big deal if a public high school would keep someone out of a service for religious reasons.)
When the service was over, a very heavy Latino presence was felt as hundreds of families filled the auditorium. It must have been maybe 80% Latino, 15% white, and 5% Somali and others. In fact, the student and staff who spoke incorporated a lot of Spanish in their speeches. As I looked around at the white families sitting there, I could see some of their discomfort.
One person who stood out was a man in a suit. He and his family were seated maybe 20 feet from me, and I could see his reactions to what was happening on the stage. Every time someone spoke in Spanish — even if that someone was white — he would shake his head, sigh, and look at his program. Every time. He looked exasperated at the end, and he and the family left quickly.
It was then that I kind of understood Trump voters who swallowed the idea of an invasion by foreigners and a re-defining of what it means to be American. Back in the early 1990s, the town I was in was probably 99% white. (I’m on a plane now, so I can’t check the Census Bureau, but I will.) Suddenly, a meat-packing plant opened in town, bringing a lot of jobs. But there were not enough people in town to do those jobs. Most of the able-bodied people worked on their farms or in the cattle-raising industry. So the company brought a large number of Central American immigrants and their families to town.
There was a huge demographic shift, and a split into classes. The upper class were mostly white, well-to-do people whose families had been there for decades. The lower class were the Latino workers who barely made a living wage, and that wage was lower as they sent their money to their families in Latin America. To fix that flow of money out, they paid for their families to join them in Nebraska, and the town grew.
With a growing town came the social issues that follow large crowds of people, like crime and disease. The large Latino contingent with the Americanized diet meant a ton more people with Type II diabetes. It would be a while before the little hospital got upgraded to serve the surging population.
And then there was another shift in the early 2000s. Somali refugees were relocated there as they arrived in the States. They also worked at the meat packing plant, but they also soon opened their own stores and restaurants just like the Latinos did. Most recently, they got together and started work on a mosque.
So, in one generation’s time, the town went from mostly white to maybe half-and-half, with three major languages being spoken, lots of stores selling foreign comforts and food, and two big religions that — let’s face it — don’t get along well at the population level right now. (Not only that, but the Latino’s are heavily Catholic with a more recent shift to evangelism while the whites are mostly Lutheran, Episcopalians, and evangelical.) Socially, demographically, everything changed in a very short amount of time.
Can you blame the people whose roots were there for generations for all of a sudden feeling “invaded”? It may not be the most rational way of feeling, but it’s very understandable. It is especially understandable if you put yourself in their shoes and look around. Multiculturalism is something that has been mostly reserved to the large cities on the coasts or at the borders, not the little towns in the middle of Great Plains.
And then comes along a blowhard with his demagoguery about how we’re invaded, our culture threatened, and our way of life (the One True Way™) is being destroyed. No wonder so many candidates on the Right are using slogans like “Rescue America.”
Rescue America from the Brown people, I guess?
It’s not just racism, though. It’s also classism. Many of the white people who moved in to work at the meat packing plant were also shunned as outsiders and as lower-class. They had nowhere to go except within, and they are the most marginalized people in the town. Being white and poor in that tiny town is a lot like being Black and poor in a big city. It places you at risk of bad health outcomes and victimization.
Luckily, from what I saw at the graduation, there is now a second generation of young men and women who understand each other. My sister was chatting and interacting with kids from all walks of life and all shades of skin color. While the parents sat segregated from each other and sighing at the languages being spoken, the kids were seated next to each other, hugging and applauding for their friends.
So we might not have achieved all the harmony we were waiting for with the Obama Administration. If anything, that Administration forgot about the marginalized populations of whites who are poor and feel threatened. Instead of reaching out to them, a lot of people on the Left gloated about their Black President. They missed a critical opportunity, in my opinion.
But we are entering a time when the current generation (i.e. Baby Ren) will serve as a Bridge between all the peoples. Our kids are going to go to school together, and they’re going to have to work together to tackle some serious problems all over the world. The Greatest Generation did this, and they bought us two or three generations of prosperity and relative peace. Though I shudder to think of what the next thing will be that forces our children to join arms and save the world, I kind of look forward to it.
I look forward to it because of what I saw at the graduation. Like one of the teachers said, “Your parents crossed borders at great peril so you can cross this threshold of your own.” They will have more borders to cross, but they’ll do it together this time. I’m sure of it.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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