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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Despite a Year of Anxiety, a Note of Hope

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As 2017 comes to a close, the weariness and exhaustion generated by the Donald Trump presidency seem everywhere. Dinner conversations inevitably come around to dreary discussions of Trump’s latest tweets, his disregard for democratic norms or his fantasyland distortion of demonstrable facts. Family gatherings have a pall cast over them as people contemplate three more years of disarray and mendacity.

It is easy to be depressed and assume the achievements of past decades — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — on issues of tolerance and intergroup relations are being undone by a president who has no shame in targeting minorities and the most vulnerable in overt, insensitive and mocking ways.

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Despite Trump, I remain hopeful that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If one steps back a bit, it seems that America has banked enough goodwill and broadly inculcated notions of tolerance that the body politic can withstand the fevered emanations from the Oval Office.

The vote in Alabama is one indication that even in the reddest of states, Trump’s act is wearing thin. His disdain for the norms of modern American modes of conduct helped sink the Roy Moore candidacy. Despite Trump’s entreaties, some 350,000 to 400,000 Alabama evangelicals did not show up at the polls this month to support Judge Moore in his bid for the Senate.

Evangelicals are the core of Trump’s support. If they are seeing through his pseudo-religious veneer, many others will, as well.

Despite his distancing of himself and his office from minority groups and his assault on them during his campaign and since his election, Americans haven’t forgotten what work remains on the intergroup front.

In summarizing a recent poll, the Pew Research Center said that “growing shares of the public say more needs to be done to address racial equality and see discrimination against Blacks as an impediment to this.”

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Sixty-one percent of the public (81 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans) say the country needs to continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with whites. Support for that proposition among Democrats is at a high mark since 2010 and within 3 points of the Republican high of support from 2015. The Trump effect hasn’t blinded Americans to the work that remains.

Even on the local level, racial groups get along, despite the Trump effect. A study earlier this year by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles found that 76 percent of Angelenos believe that “racial groups in Los Angeles are getting along well.” That compares with 37 percent in 1997 (five years after the riots), 48 percent in 2007, and 72 percent in 2012. Angelenos have equaled the most positive assessment of race relations at any point in the last 25 years.

In terms of particular groups in L.A., African-Americans think we are getting along “well or somewhat well” at 73 percent, Asians at 79 percent, whites at 81 percent and Latinos at 72 percent.

The barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context.

These findings, though taken early in the Trump presidency, suggest that groups can distinguish between the rhetoric of a president who cares not a whit about whom he ostracizes, condemns or harms and the real world. They have figured out that their lives are independent of the show in Washington, D.C. Even Latinos, a particular target of Trump, have a positive assessment (at 72 percent) of how we are getting along in L.A.

On a more global scale, there is reason for optimism. In a post-Trump election interview posted on Vox, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”) warned about getting too concerned with the headlines of the day and the media’s “given wisdom.” The fact is that well-established trends and attitudes transcend the vagaries of one election.

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“More generally,” Pinker said, “the worldwide, decadeslong current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice — and more importantly for the future, that younger are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.

“It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. [Seth] Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes
and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.”

If you want to see the dark clouds on the horizon, there are plenty. The next three years will continue to be very rocky. The nightly news will stream awful stories and troubling facts. Yet, the barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context. By most measures we and the world are doing better than we ever have, if not as well as we might.


David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., which is chaired by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

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