Presidential primaries often bring out the worst in American politics. Candidates’ messages are often rooted in the “us versus them” mentality, with presidential hopefuls trying to one up their competition by further slamming the opposing party. As an oral communications instructor at a tribal college or university (TCU), I challenge my students to analyze the rhetoric of these divisive campaigns for attention grabbing headlines, substantive policy proposals, and logical fallacies. Every election cycle my new students are reliably interested in analyzing which candidates will foster a strong economy in time for their graduation, as well as where the would-be commander-in-chiefs stand on American Indian issues. What’s surprising is that past hot button disputes over income inequality, entitlement accessibility, and matters of foreign policy only garner faint rumblings this year. Rather, my students are quick to point out that the 2016 primaries expose America’s demographic divisions. As an educator preparing students to work and thrive within a multi-racial, ethnic, and cultural world, it frustrates me to hear the nonchalant way in which groups of people are being reduced and dismissed by some of our presidential hopefuls. So, in this column I’m asking my TCU peers to join me in steering our campuses away from the candidates’ “us versus them” mentality and moving closer towards a dialogue that unites all Americans under the banner of “We the People.”
The United States has a long history of discrimination that our country is painfully slow in acknowledging and correcting. We can see this embedded generational bigotry in every Confederate flag, racist mascot, and reductive epitaph that’s celebrated. Yet every year America’s minority populations grow in numbers, which means that with every election the input of the often minimalized minority voters carries more weight. We can look to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s decisive victories in the Southern states’ Democratic primaries as evidence of her appeal to African American and Hispanic voters. She is also hoping to follow President Obama’s lead by engaging American Indians with her campaign because the Native vote can be decisive in state elections throughout the country.
On the flip side of the coin is the sad reality that contemporary society needs to move beyond the failed use of racial profiling. But our country struggles in deciding how best to take action. While the Black Lives Matter movement has taken steps by using technologically advanced body cameras in policing, giving us cause to celebrate how modern advancements have improved accountability, the complexity of the global refugee and terrorist crises has brought flippant 20th century solutions to the tongues of 21st century politicians. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has proposed building a wall between the United States and Mexico similar to the one built in Berlin during the Cold War, and has waffled on the use of Muslim internment camps reminiscent of those used during World War II to confine Japanese Americans. Similarly, Trump’s primary competition for the nomination, Ted Cruz, also supports building a wall on our southern border and has recently endorsed religious profiling when he called for “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” This type of knee-jerk backward thinking was flawed during its original inception, and its resurgence now only serves to stagnate our country’s progress.
Our classrooms are natural crucibles for critical inquiry. This semester one of my astute students challenged his Trump-supporting peers’ condemnation of Mexican and Muslim immigration by quoting the politician’s previous stances on American Indian people. The discussion went beyond Trump’s recent support for Washington, D.C.’s football mascot, and directly to his 1993 comments against the Mashantucket Pequot tribe’s casino that would compete for customers with Trump’s planned Bridgeport, Connecticut property. At a congressional subcommittee on Indian gaming, Trump tried to supersede tribal rolls and self-determination rights when he said the Pequot weren’t real Native Americans, adding, “They don’t look like Indians to me. They don’t look like Indians to Indians.” Trump then speculated that the casino would be a haven for organized crime and “will be the biggest scandal ever.” Seven years later, Trump tried to stop a St. Regis Mohawk casino by running ads featuring the drug paraphernalia and hypodermic needles that the development would allegedly bring to the area. While Trump’s past anti-Indian gaming stances weren’t surprising to every student, they laid the foundation for the lesson I was hoping to instill—a politician who tries to marginalize any demographic can quickly pivot to attack the rest of us.
At the AIHEC student conference last month, Oglala Lakota Olympian Billy Mills spoke about how America needs to form “unity through diversity” to make positive policy changes. Mills calls this inclusionary thinking “collectively choreographing our future.” He concluded by challenging those of us connected to TCUs to help fulfill his belief that “America’s answers lie in the souls of young Indigenous people.”
While it’s true that TCU educators have little sway over the messages each presidential candidate puts forth, we can challenge the future leaders in our classrooms to look beyond our demographic divisions and seek inclusionary solutions that harness America’s diverse potential. It’s hardly a radical idea, but it’s one too often dismissed in the ugliness of the “us versus them” rallying cries. By urging our students to seek candidates who try to unify our country, we can help foster a United States of America that is stronger because it speaks for every one of us.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
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Bever, L. (2015, Dec 8). Internment Camps? “I certainly hate the concept,” Donald Trump Says. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/12/08/trump-on-internment-camps-i-certainly-hate-the-concept/
Chan, M. (2016, Mar 27). NYPD Counterterrorism Chief Slams Ted Cruz’s Plan to Patrol Muslim Areas. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/4273226/nypd-ted-cruz-muslims/.
Mills, B. (2016, Mar 15). AIHEC 2016 Speech. Minneapolis, MN.
NoiseCat, J.B. (2015, Aug 12). Donald Trump Was Also A Dirtbag To Native Americans. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-was-also-a-dirtbag-to-native-americans_us_55cb9290e4b0923c12bf0688.
Schultheis, E. (2015, Aug 26). How Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Is Making Its Play for Native American Support. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/how-hillary-clintons-campaign-is-making-its-play-for-native-american-support/457629/
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.