Executive Director’s Message: Traumatizer in Chief

By Janlee Wong

Social workers know all too well the cumulative and debilitating effects of trauma from birth to old age. We know full well how social determinants such as poverty, crime, dysfunctional families, bullying, health and mental health issues can block or divert one’s life and well-being.  Given a chance, many can overcome these obstacles and everyday there are examples of this.

We also know how image, stigma, racism and stereotyping can add to the trauma and cause it to persist.  Racist denigrating comments by the President such as “Go back…”, “rat and rodent infested…”, and “…hate America…” are how the “leader” of the United States can further traumatize and retraumatize individuals, families and communities for no reason other than political gain.

Pulling down people and their communities, reaffirming racist stereotypes in public and frightening or angering white people is not only undercutting people who are working on getting past their trauma, but it also reinforces prejudice and discrimination among those who have white privilege to the point that some don’t want to help the other and instead blame them for their own situation and predicament.

We can’t have a leader who acts this way and blocks us from being a better country and society.  Those who support this person’s behavior rationalize away this abusive and inhumane behavior by claiming he’s simply speaking the truth, or he doesn’t intend it to be racist or divisive.

Many have blamed Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on inspiring the tragic mass shooting in El Paso by a white supremacist targeting people of Mexican ancestry.  This country’s history is full of leaders or so-called leaders that used this tactic to gain or remain in political power but caused untold trauma and blocked us to this day from becoming a better and stronger society.

Denis Kearney in 19th-century California was one of the leaders of the anti-Chinese immigrant movement that eventually led to the only Federal law excluding people because of their race. The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, vehemently hated Native Americans and his words and acts led to murder and horrific acts of violence against the first Californians.

President Herbert Hoover called for the forced repatriation of thousands of Mexican Americans, including many U.S. citizens at the beginning of the Great Depression blaming them for taking jobs from “Americans.”  President Franklin Roosevelt and Governor Earl Warren signed off on detaining and incarcerating tens of thousands based on their Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Governor Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187 to deny undocumented immigrants’ access to social services (later declared unconstitutional).  His support of Proposition 187 coupled with inflammatory TV ads showing Mexican immigrants rushing the San Diego border led to his re-election in 1994.

In each of these instances, the targeted population was scarred and traumatized with some or their descendants even up to this day.  But no historical figure compares to our current President, who is relentless in his almost daily attacks using social media on any individual, group of individuals or whole communities that oppose or criticize him.

History also shows us these “wrongs” can be righted, although the trauma can’t.  After 61 years, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943.  In 1988, President Reagan signed the Japanese American redress bill providing $20,000 to surviving incarcerees.  Governor Pete Wilson was the last to use divisive polarizing political tactics to win a gubernatorial election.  Governors since then have stayed away from pitting one group against another based on race or national origin. The 2020 Presidential election will determine if these tactics will continue to work or not on a national level.