(RNS) When I heard about the murderous rampage of a known white supremacist shouting anti-Muslim slurs, I couldn’t believe my ears.
It must be another city in some far-flung European country that had enough of immigrants. When I got to my social media feed, sure enough, it was Portland, Ore., the liberal bastion of peace-loving hippies.
That very line of thinking is at the crux of our nation’s dilemma dealing with race.
The man accused in the attack, Jeremy Joseph Christian, was all over the political spectrum, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, even identifying himself as a Bernie Sanders supporter at one point. He was definitely a white nationalist and a well-documented racist by his own admission.
Racism knows no politics, and white supremacy is not a disease of a particular political party or ethnicity. Even people in my own Muslim American community have benefited from white privilege, white supremacy and racism for personal gain.
Oregon, where whites make up 72 percent of Portland's population and where voters preferred Bernie Sanders in the primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election, is just as fertile a breeding ground for white supremacy as the reddest states in the Union.
To be fair, in interviews with Portland residents over the weekend, many reiterated the city’s inclusiveness, insisting the murderous rampage is not normal. Case in point: The three amazing heroes who came to the defense of the two women on the train were righteous defenders of justice willing to risk their lives.
“To see people willing to put their lives on the line to defend us was extremely powerful and moving,” said Mohamed Alyajouri, a spokesman for the Muslim Educational Trust, a Portland-area Muslim Community Center.
Alyajouri described how Ramadan began just one day after the attack and a community iftar was planned to break the daylong fast. Planners expected 200 to 300 people, but 600 neighbors showed up, most of them not Muslim. After President Trump's first executive order calling for a temporary travel ban from seven Muslim-majority nations in January, more than 1,200 people came to the center to show support. The examples are plentiful.
The compulsion to characterize the Portland slayings as resulting from Trump’s election is faulty and irresponsible.
Both the church shooting massacre in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and the killing of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., the same year happened on President Obama’s watch.
The underpinnings and policies of the current administration, however, have done two things: given white supremacists a sense of legitimacy and mobilized people as a force for good.
Oregon’s history has made many parts of the state, including Portland, places where people of color do not feel truly welcome. Plenty of people trying to take on racial justice issues have grappled with staying in Oregon because the task at hand is so daunting, according to Zakir Khan, a member of the CAIR Oregon Ad Hoc Committee.
Khan said city officials have handled race issues with a perceived lack of transparency. Mayor Ted Wheeler even chose to leave a vigil for the stabbing victims, for example, rather than become a distraction, when he came under fire from the attendees.
This is a pivotal time for the people of the United States to decide what we want our legacy to be: an agent for white supremacists, or a country that confronts its racist history? There’s no way to whitewash this dilemma.
(Alia Salem, a Public Voices Fellow, is former executive director of the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)