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Although I don’t enjoy going out as often as I once did, I do still enjoy people watching in cafes — particularly when I’m procrastinating. Watching details, making inferences, and concocting stories while watching others drink their lattes and eat their salads is why a writer hangs out in a cafe or coffee shop. I certainly can’t get any serious writing done there.
Most recently, I was watching a bearded father working on a laptop while entertaining his son and daughter. Given that the father looked Middle Eastern I reflexively assumed he was Muslim, because I’m white and we tend to do that — even if we feel guilty about it afterward. Then he sent back a sandwich he’d ordered because he didn’t realize it had bacon on it, so it turned out my knee-jerk categorization was most likely correct.
But what’s really held my thoughts since then wasn’t the father but the children, young enough to still be innocent of the world around them, but old enough that this could be the first presidential campaign season they remember, however hazily. Which means one of their earliest memories could be hearing renowned surgeon, icon of African-American success, and current presidential candidate Ben Carson declare that they should never be allowed to grow up to be president.
Essentially, the American Dream for me, not thee.
Carson has since defended and expanded on his comments, saying that he believes any Muslim should be required to renounce Sharia law, despite the fact that there can be no religious test for a candidate in our democracy, even if voters are free to act on their bigotry. Leaving aside Carson’s questionable grasp of U.S. constitutional law and the actual workings of democracy, one wonders why a Muslim candidate would have to renounce various Koranic laws and passages while our unbroken line of Christian presidents have never been required to renounce the barbaric laws in their own Old and New Testaments.
But of course, this is just fear-mongering crap, playing to the not-insignificant portion of Americans — mostly, but not entirely, Republicans — who can never stop seeing Muslims, or anyone they perceive to be Muslim, as a monolithic existential threat. He’s pandering to the people who protest the building of any mosque on American soil. He’s pandering to the Trump supporters who believe our country is infected with Muslim terrorist training camps, even though our home-grown terrorists have predominantly been white supremacists. He’s demonizing Americans who are different than him because of ambition, ignorance, or (most likely) both.
As a gay man, I am constantly aware that my experience of discrimination is in no real way equivalent to the African-American experience. Yes, I’ve known people who have been beaten, who’ve been killed, who’ve died from government neglect. I’ve been turned away, mocked, and threatened for being gay. I know the history of my community and how the government and society long attempted marginalization and elimination of us. But all that pales to the centuries of the middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow, and every other horror that America managed to throw at black people.
It’s generally not my place to dictate how a black person’s experience with bigotry in the past should influence their reaction to issues of discrimination in the present. But. But, but, but.
At 47, I’m old enough to remember my great grandmother, who was born shortly after the Civil War and experienced Reconstruction and Jim Crow as a white woman. At 64, Carson should certainly have even greater connection to the past than I, through his and other black families who lived, suffered, and — in his case — eventually thrived despite an openly racist society.
Like me, Carson should remember that not so long ago the majority of Americans didn’t believe a Catholic could be president, because any Catholic would be subservient to the pope. And, like me, Carson should know that most of America’s deepest fears of others have proven to be false — righteous at the time and racist in hindsight.
So in this case, I’m willing to say it: Ben Carson should know better because he’s black. He should know better because he’s seen the results of racism and xenophobia in this country, even if he laudably rose above them in his own profession. He should know better because he’s an extremely intelligent man who shouldn’t be pandering to bigots.
And he should know better because telling little Muslim children, some of the most recent to learn of the American Dream, that they can’t aspire to the same dreams as their non-Muslim friends is the most anti-American thing he could do.
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