I will not recount here the details of the tragedy that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, nor the responses that followed which mirrored the views of White supremacists, or the views of those of us who are firmly in opposition to such hatred and bigotry. We are all aware of the words of the President of the United States who said that both sides were to blame for the violence that tragically took the life of Heather Heyer. I join with all who insist that there is a complete lack of shared blame or moral equivalency between the group that blatantly displayed their symbols of hatred and bigotry and the group that opposed those vicious and inhumane views. It was also a day when two Virginia State Patrol policemen lost their lives, and 19 people were injured.
What I will recount here are instances in my own story that explain why I was so profoundly frightened and outraged by what took place in Charlottesville. I was frightened because I have personally witnessed such displays of White supremacy. In recalling my outrage I lift up the last words that our shero, Heather Heyer, wrote on her Facebook page: “If you are not outraged you are not paying attention.” I will also speak to what I strongly feel we can and must do in response to the brutal outpouring of hatred that took place in Charlottesville.
Many among the protesters in Charlottesville wore symbols and shouted out words associated with the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and other White supremacist groups, including swastikas and the robes and hoods of the Klan. Seeing all of those objects of hatred, especially men in the garb of the Ku Klux Klan, took me back to that day when I, a 20-year-old graduate student, had come to my home town of Jacksonville, Florida, with another graduate student who was my fiancé…. a White American man. A telephone call was made to our home with this threat: “If that nigger-lover white man doesn’t get out of town there could be a cross burning or something worse at your house.”
The shouts, signs, and symbols of White supremacy in Charlottesville conjured up the terror about lynchings that I experienced as a youngster living in Jacksonville, Florida. Even though I had never had to witness one, I knew that lynchings took place; and I was taught the basic rules of what I must never do or say that could put me in the way of such brutal harm. A recent study by the Equal Justice Institute indicates that there were 3,959 racial terror lynching in America between 1877 and 1950. Charlottesville had 90 confirmed lynchings in that period; and Florida, the state that I was born in and where I was living in 1950, had lynched more Black people per capita than any other state.
I shuddered when I saw and heard men in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us,” for I know that such horrific sentiments, spoken in different words and in different languages, were spewed out during the Holocaust. It is such words that have an indelible association with the genocide in which 6 million European Jews were killed because of the ideology and actions of Adolf Hitler and those who followed him.
During the Jim Crow era in which I grew up, I saw signs that said, “No niggers, Jews or dogs allowed.” Over the years as my consciousness expanded, I became aware that there were signs in Texas that said, “No Mexicans or dogs allowed”; and in some parts of the U.S. there were signs that targeted Asians in what were known as Sundown Towns.
On that tragic day in Charlottesville, in addition to shouts of you will not replace us and Jews will not replace us, there were shouts of F — k you faggots; commie scum, and White lives matter. All of which reflect how White supremacists manage to spew out and act on their hatred for any and all people who are outside of their definition of “the superior White race.”
While I grew up in those wretched days of legal segregation and ubiquitous racism, I also grew up in a family and a community that taught me that no matter my fear of being harmed by racist acts, I had a responsibility to push through my fear and to do whatever I could to act against injustices. A sense of that responsibility has stuck with me, and leads me in the wake of Charlottesville to pose this question: What can and must we do? Doing nothing is not an option, for as Audre Lorde reminded us: “Your silence will not protect you.”
Here are five actions that we can and must take.
1) We must engage in resistance against intolerance, bigotry, and hatred in all forms. How critical such a posture is as we deal with the realities of these troubling times. Resistance can take multiple forms, from having courageous conversations with a colleague, family member, or stranger overheard using racist language, to participating in one of the many demonstrations and protests taking place all over our country against bigotry and hatred and in support of all instances of human rights. As I think about our responsibility to resist domination and oppression, I am reminded of the critical point that bell hooks made when she said:
It is important to remember as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist — the potential victim within that we must rescue — otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.
2) We can and must remain connected to our fundamental values such as respect for human diversity and the need to create and sustain inclusive environments. Those of us who are associated with or work for organizations that have made their diversity and inclusion values public and even published them have an additional responsibility — to call on the leaders of those organizations to reaffirm those values. As Mahatma Gandhi said:
Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny.
3) We can and must take concrete action. The most obvious one is to call on our elected officials to stand up and to speak out against hatred and bigotry in any and all forms. As difficult as it may be to reach out to and to lobby elected officials who we know do not share our values, we have a responsibility to do so. Let us follow the example of Bernice Jagger who has said, “ I don’t believe in lobbying only progressive and liberal members of congress. I don’t believe in doing interviews only with those who share my views. I want to reach a wider audience.”
4) We can and must read! Reading is a powerful means to learn about the lives of people who are different from oneself. As the late senator S.I. Hayakawa said, “It is not true that we have only one life to live. If we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.” When we read the stories of others, we can also discover the multiple ways in which, in addition to the lines that divide us, there are ties that bind us. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “We read to know we are not alone.”
5) Lastly, but ever so importantly, we must never succumb to hopelessness. We dare not give into White supremacy, racism, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism. As Helen Keller has said, “Optimism is the fate that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
In these days, months, and years that follow what took place in Charlottesville, as we continue the many faceted struggles for social justice, let us remember these words of Caesar Chavez: “Perhaps we can bring the day when children will learn from their earliest days that being fully man and fully woman means to give one’s life to the liberation of the brother (and the sister) who suffers.”