Donald Trump’s public statements have shaken up our country’s political climate in a way we haven’t quite seen before.
Mr. Trump has criticized the judge overseeing a federal lawsuit against Trump University, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, because of the judge’s “Mexican heritage.” Mr. Trump says the judge’s heritage creates “an inherent conflict of interest” due to Trump’s positions on border security.
Mr. Trump later added fuel to the fire by reiterating to CNN, “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.”
Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel are a slap in the face to every Latino jurist, whether Republican or Democrat. These comments are more suited for the 1950s and ’60s, not for the presidential election of 2016. The Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, tepidly called Trump’s attack on a Latino federal judge who was born in the United States “sort of a textbook case” of racism. These comments show a larger cultural challenge that our society must face head on.
Mr. Trump is clearly unaware that Latinos in general – and “Mexicans” in particular – have deep roots in the U.S. and the American Southwest. By generalizing, Trump demeans all Americans of Mexican descent. Like the rest of the Latino family, Mexican Americans are not monolithic. Some might agree with him, but according to Trump’s logic, they are unfit to be his judge or on his jury due to their heritage and roots.
In the presidential campaign of 1960, critics of John F. Kennedy also generalized. They alleged that President Kennedy had an inherent conflict of interest because he was Catholic. Though it was a close race, most Americans were not as small-minded as Mr. Kennedy’s critics thought they would be. Today, no one thinks that a Catholic is automatically disqualified from seeking the office just because he or she is Catholic.
In 1990, when I became the first “Mexican” American to serve in the Legislature from rural Far West Texas, I was asked whether I would be more loyal to the government of Mexico or the government of the U.S., and whether I could represent Anglos as well as Mexicans. These were not questions asked of any of my Anglo predecessors.
Still, hard work in the legislative arena put these questions to rest. In subsequent elections, no one asked me those questions again. But now, Mr. Trump resurrects those same bigoted ideas and stereotypes. Trump’s rhetoric harkens us back to the Mexican American and Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond.
Unlike President Lincoln, Donald Trump does not call out to the “better angels of our nature.” Unlike President Kennedy, he does not call or inspire us to public service. Instead, Trump’s strength comes from dividing people, pitting neighbors against each other, and encouraging us to turn our backs on the common history and the common goals we all share as Americans.
Perhaps Mr. Trump did not spend his formative years on the receiving end of racism in a segregated community. Even so, Mr. Trump comes from a family of immigrants too – emigrating even more recently than many of my fellow Latinos – but he doesn’t understand that it is this patchwork quilt of humanity that has made the United States of America the strongest and most successful country in the world.
Trump as President is not just a problem for Latinos, it’s a problem for all Texans and all Americans. Trump’s comments on Judge Curiel’s heritage aren’t just racist, they also deny the fundamental American value that if you work hard in this country you deserve a fair shot at opportunity.
Regardless of whether you’re Latino, White, African American, or Asian, we as Texans believe in hard work. Hard work, opportunity, and the freedom to be able to succeed are what make us all American.
My Republican opponent this election made the calculated choice to cover for Paul Ryan and Donald Trump. He knows that Trump’s attacks are wrong for our country – White, Black, Latino, Asian American, everyone – because they are an attack on the American Dream. He knows it is wrong, but still he stays quiet. This lack of action is inexcusable because an attack on any American’s heritage is an attack on all of us.
Since before the days of statehood, Latinos have faced down the naked bitterness and hatred of prejudice to become part of the backbone that makes America great. I pray that, over the course of the campaign, Mr. Trump will realize that Latinos, too, are as American as they come. We are Texans, we are moving forward, and the country is coming with us to make America even greater.
Top Image: Donald Trump looks behind his shoulder before he calls Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz to the podium to speak. Photo by Scott Ball.