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Minnesota, White People, Lutherans and Ilhan Omar

Interesting that Trump’s current opportunistic vilification campaign focuses on a congresswoman from Minnesota.

My late mother was from Minnesota. Daughter of an immigrant Swedish father and a mother born of Norwegian immigrants, she had a kind of Ingrid Bergman look. The hospital record describes her as “comely” (as though this were a technical term) at age 80.

I recall a black girl at Walter Reed Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia telling me circa 1966: “Yo mama’s cute!” My fifth grade brain registered appreciation that she would admire a white woman’s looks. The “racial tension” in that newly-integrated school was palpable.

My mom complained to me that in her parent-teacher conference with our teacher (“Ms. Calhoun”) she’d been shocked by the latter’s bold-faced racism. The school had just been integrated a couple years before and Ms. Calhoun was not a happy camper.

Having attended schools on military bases, most recently Ramstein AFB, Germany, which were of course integrated, I was challenged by the ambient tension in Arlington. I made black friends easily but also had one fist fight with a black kid named Alvin who ripped the buttons off my shirt. The fight was a draw and we were friends afterwards. As I recall my mom was forgiving, about the shirt.

Just random memories of my Minnesota mom, and those times.

I later attended Swanson Junior High School down the street, another newly-integrated school, from 1968 to 1970. A lot of heavy stuff happened across the Potomac in those years: massive antiwar demonstrations, ferocious “race riots,” counter-culture explosions. My father, a career military officer, responded to the changing times with fear and defensiveness; he did not respond well to my opposition to the Vietnam War as a middle schooler. He became impossible to talk to, while my Mom would always listen.

“Why are you listening to that Negro music?” she once asked, referring to Motown on the radio. I said I like it. The Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips. She got used to it.

My mom became more progressive over time, although when we moved to Hawai’i—so that my father could work at CINCPAC—she was concerned about her sons developing relations with Asian women. (That in fact happened but she adjusted; her racist views faded over time.)

My mom had not met a black person until she took the train from Minnesota to Alabama to get married in 1954; both my parents grew up in lightly populated parts of the mid-west where everyone was white. Mom was born and raised in Moorhead, in the Red River Valley, sister city to Fargo, North Dakota. (You’ve seen the movie. Yes, that’s how people talk in Fargo. I have aunts who talk that way.) My father was born in the middle of North Dakota, in a village of 300 white people visited sometimes by some Lakota Sioux. This was then total-white territory.

My parents met while he studied at North Dakota State University in Fargo—where Ilhan Omar would study many years later. My mom worked as a telephone operator in Moorhead next door. She was the youngest of six siblings, raised after her father’s premature death by a mother who did laundry and sewing, and by older siblings before they left for the war. My father was the oldest of five, son of the leading merchant in his tiny hometown, always full of confidence and arrogance. The two shared a Lutheran faith, my father as a pro forma matter, my mother more genuinely pious. (She badly wanted me to study theology and become a Lutheran minister and was saddened when I abandoned Christianity.)

I visited the Midwest many times in my childhood, seeing relatives in both states. I thought my Minnesota relatives (my mom’s people) fun to be with: we share to this day a dry Nordic humor and general tolerance for diversity. On the other hand I thought my paternal relatives repressed and humorless. (“Germanic,” I thought). My great-great-grandfather was a Swiss theologian who immigrated to the U.S. during the Civil War. I think he was trained in Calvinist theology in Basel but found employment in Lutheran churches; I wonder how he resolved the ideological contradiction. But all his books and notes were lost in a Red River flood so I have no basis to analyze.

Anyway, with such Midwest roots I rejoice in the knowledge that the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) have come to host the largest community of Somali immigrants in the U.S. And that the fifth congressional district of Minnesota, covering Minneapolis, is represented by Ilhan Omar. Her constituency is 67% white, 17% black (including Somali immigrants), 9% Asian and 1% Native American.

Omar’s warm airport welcome when she returned to Minneapolis suggests she has endeared herself to base that is overwhelmingly white. By one calculation, Minnesota is the 13th “whitest” state in the nation. It is among the most Christian states, with about a quarter Lutherans and a quarter Catholic. (One of my aunts married a Catholic in the 50s and there was a terrible fuss.) It is a Bible-reading population.

The Bible teaches that the Creator of all things chose the descendants of Abraham, his Chosen People, to possess the Promised Land. The New Testament teaches that Jesus will return to Jerusalem during the End Times. Some Bible prophetic texts can be construed as predicting (and justifying) the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Israel.

Christian Zionists feel passionately supportive of Israel, and are generally disinterested in the details of Palestinian oppression. Their pastors preach from the pulpit that we must all support Israel because God Himself calls on us to do so. Organized Christianity in this country remains largely pro-Zionist, and the Israel Lobby increasingly conflates any criticism of Israel’s (rather obvious, egregious) crimes—and even any promotion of boycotts of Israeli products—with “anti-Semitism.”

The president least sensitive to issues of bigotry and racism suddenly is bursting with indignation that Omar has said “terrible things about Israel.” An obvious ploy and sop to his most backward followers.

But if the plan is to hurt Omar’s political fortunes, it might not work in Minnesota. The locally powerful Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, and support for the BDS movement, until the Israelis stop colonizing the West Bank. They have been protesting the separation wall since at least 2005. They are Christians with a conscience, paying attention to the real world rather than fantasizing about the Rapture.

I think of one of my Minnesota aunts, on the repressed Germanic side, the Lutheran who boldly married the Catholic in the 1950s when it was controversial (“inter-faith marriage”), chatting with me in her hometown in North Dakota in 2000. We were talking about Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose fate was then in the balance. She opined he should be returned to his dad in Cuba of course—as though it were obvious. I felt so pleased by her rationality, in a family that I suspect at present as I speak continues to include Trump supporters. She still strikes me as a model Minnesotan, upright, energetic, reasonable, thoughtful, compassionate. Like my mom.

The thought that white, Scandinavian-American, German-American, Lutheran Minnesotans are chatting in church basements over lutefish at the smorgasbord, drinking strong black coffee and praising this woman for her courage is pleasing. May white people in Minnesota and elsewhere dignify themselves by standing up for Ilhan Omar in these disturbing times.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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