When I was reporting on the human toll of U.S. immigration policy back in the early 2000s, I was at first blindsided by the viciousness of some of the reader mail I received after writing these stories. These letters and emails typically did not dispute the facts behind the reporting. No, they downright ignored them, reacting instead with an anger striking for its lack of humanity.
Some readers did not see the undocumented immigrants I wrote about as fellow human beings, but as animals. Cockroaches. Leeches. I was a target, too. A few asked this question: “How is it that the Statesman allows a Mexican to report on illegal immigration?”
Sound familiar? “Mexican judge,” anyone?
Back then, I shared with a colleague that I was getting this mail and that I was tossing it into the literal or digital trash can. “Don’t,” she said, confiding that she received racist mail, which she saved.
“Those letters,” she went on, “will remind you that these people are out there, too.”
I began keeping the letters and printing out the emails, stashing them all away.
I was reminded of this amid the swift condemnation of Roseanne Barr for her racist tweets, which should have surprised no one because she had made reprehensible racist remarks before. ABC yanked Barr’s show off the air, a move widely praised, but we should not kid ourselves. Barr might have lost her job and, for the moment, her livelihood, but like that thick pile of emails and letters I saved, her abhorrent thinking reminds us that there are untold others like her out there, too. Way out there.
Recently, I wrote about how the ugliness of our public discourse is now on full display, stripped of the veneer over overt racism. Politics brings out the worst in some of us. Thanks to social media, we can stare into this underbelly until we cannot stomach it. Bigotry, hate, intolerance — we can no longer cling to illusions that if we can’t see or hear them, they do not exist.
I focused on the writer of a letter to the editor who for merely expressing his opinion received anonymous mail containing an anti-Semitic slur at his home. The sheriff’s office was investigating this as a hate crime.
The column struck a nerve. I heard from many of you who confided you are worried for us as a society if we can’t disagree without trying to destroy each other and if we can’t live together without vilifying our fellow human beings for their race or religion or skin color. You thanked the newspaper for standing up to bigotry.
“It is emotionally disturbing to go through so many instances of uncivilized behavior,” one reader wrote.
I traded emails with another reader, telling her I feared that shining a light on this would scare people off from joining the public dialogue that the letters to the editor space offers.
“I hope more people are stubborn like I am, and will say ‘You will not trample my First Amendment rights’” she responded. “We can’t live in fear all the time.”
Like a few readers who responded to my column, she too received anonymous mail at home after having a letter published in the newspaper. There’s more: She says she recently was the victim of a harrowing road rage incident that she attributes to the bumper stickers on her car supporting Democratic candidates and – irony alert – virtues like tolerance and coexistence. After tailgating her and trying to prevent her from changing lanes, the other driver deliberately rammed into her car from behind, then hit her again, pushing her down MoPac Boulevard in rush-hour traffic. Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt.
“I am shaken by what happened,” she admitted. “I am shaken that this has become so ‘normal.’”
So, how did these civil wars begin? How did this descent into intolerance and diatribe as discourse become the norm?
Some of you wrote to say that sowing disunity starts at the top with President Trump. But another reader said I was part of the problem.
“What started as a plea for civility from all sides ended by staking this out as a Republican Party problem,” he wrote about my column. “I can promise you that all you accomplished was letting your progressive readers walk away feeling smug while antagonizing your conservative readers.”
I’m not interested in keeping score. As far as I’m concerned, all sides have some mud on ’em.
“How do we bring everyone along to choosing a moral and ethical high ground?” one reader asked.
That is the salient question — and that is where many of you find common ground. Your answer: It starts with calling out shameful, reprehensible behavior, and not letting it stand. On that, we can and should all agree. Peacefully. You know, like human beings coexisting.
Castillo is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org