During the current hearings on affirmative action, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia questioned the admittance of African-American students at elite universities, saying: "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well."
That type of comment, suggesting that black students don't belong at elite institutions of higher education, made a staggering point about racism in 2015: Apparently being openly racist is acceptable. Justice Scalia's inflammatory statements obviously received major backlash, but that doesn't takeaway from the fact that a representative at the highest court in our land felt comfortable voicing such an obviously prejudiced opinion.
After the San Bernardino, California, shootings in which two Muslim Americans fatally shot 14 people, Donald Trump released a policy statement suggesting that the United States ban all Muslims from entering the country. “We’re out of control,” he said during a South Carolina rally. “We have no idea who’s coming into our country. We have no idea if they love us or hate us."
The Washington Post recently reported on several Muslim-American families who are living in fear after Trump's call to ban them, pointing out that it affects the children most.
"Ahad Khan, 12, came home from school in rural Westminster, Maryland, in tears because his best friend called him a future terrorist who couldn’t be trusted, according to Ahad’s father, Raza Khan."
After Trump said his comments against Latinos, two South Boston brothers beat a Latino homeless man. One of them told police officers that "it was OK to assault the man because he was Hispanic and homeless," The Boston Globe reported. “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported,” he allegedly told the police.
Tina Vasquez, an Immigration Reporting Fellow, shared a personal essay in The Guardian about the affects of Trump's words for a Latina in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world with a huge Mexican population to boot. She writes:
"A couple of weeks ago, while I was running errands in my neighborhood, a stranger asked me if I was 'illegal.' Around 10 minutes earlier another stranger asked me if I spoke English. Both were white and one of them even called me 'senorita.'"
Though Trump has made incredibly provocative comments about Mexican immigrants and talked about deporting all undocumented Latinos in the country, the racist sentiment currently churning in our country cannot be blamed on him alone.
Brian J. Purnell, associate professor of Africana studies and history at Bowdoin College, says racist sentiment can’t be blamed on the likes of Trump because he is merely capitalizing on feelings that already exist. "Racism has no excuse. It is an ever present part of American culture that comes to life or lies dormant depending on social, economic, and political conditions."
Wait, so we can't blame Trump for all this insanity? Ugh. “I don't think the GOP, or specifically Trump, give people license to intensify their racism,” Purnell says. “I think racism works in reverse. People have intense racist fears and anxieties. They always have them in some degree, and conditions exacerbate them or trigger them. Then demagogues, like Trump, tap into those currents and exploit them for political gain.”
It's important to note the role social media plays in all of this. At times it makes us feel that racial tensions are more prevalent now than before because our generation hasn't really known a world before instant and immediate access to information. Images and stories are so easily distributed via Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook with smartphones, that it makes "news," accurate or not, easy to amplify.
Black Lives Matter started in 2012, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It grew immensely via social media after the death of another African-American, Eric Garner, and the acquittal of the police officer that killed him.
There have been literally hundreds of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers since. But there have been thousands in the decades before. The fact that we are now able to watch the murders play out in real time in videos that spread like wild fire on social media has galvanized people and forced the media to spotlight these incidences in a way that had previously never happened.
Purnell attributes various social, economic, and historical events that have taken place since the 9/11 terrorist attack that have heightened racial anxiety here in the U.S. such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the economic crash; mass shootings; and the Boston Marathon bombing. He also pointed out that violent attacks in other parts of the world such as the recent terrorism in Paris affect us here in the U.S.
For Latinos, most of the racist attitudes can be attributed to misinformation surrounding illegal immigration and concerns about the border security.
“On the other side of the terrorism coin you have undocumented workers — millions of them. This past summer we had thousands of children coming from Central and South America, through Mexico, and arriving in the U.S.,” Purnell states. “If the national borders are that porous and so many people can slip through, what effect could that have on national security?”
It's these kinds of questions and paranoia that lend themselves to heightened racism and thus, to those who feel more comfortable voicing these extremist, racist views and letting their prejudiced views come to light. They feel vindicated by the historical climate and encouraged by public figures who validate their hate.
"We don't have more or less of racism at one time versus another. We don't have an amount of racism that changes," points out Purnell, "Even when racism operates at a really high voltage or intensity, people might not fully know, unless something draws our attention to it — like the terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina; or the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the reactions to those events."
Long story short, racism has always been part of American culture and history. “Events can unveil high levels of racial anxiety,” Purnell says. “So can people.”