As we prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and the subsequent response of President Donald Trump, let’s take a moment to understand what this means for America today.
The Charlottesville events of 2017 all started with neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches and white nationalists yelling epithets at people of color and ended with the tragic death of Heather Heyer, who was there to protest this hate.
And our president’s response to this was that there “was blame on both sides.”
Sometimes we like to pretend that this kind of thing is unprecedented in America. It is not. These white nationalists, as well as many commentators that support Trump, have a long history in America of using people’s fears of a changing country to create hate against anyone who doesn’t look like them.
African-Americans have dealt with this throughout our history and still do today. Even after the Civil War was fought over slavery, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, we still dealt with blatant discrimination for 100 more years until civil rights legislation was passed. Even at that time, in the 1960s, many politicians and citizens fought against these civil rights advances, and their passage spurred the rise of the now-infamous George Wallace, who was governor of Alabama and ran for president twice, appealing to this same fear and anger, getting millions of Americans to vote for him.
Not only have African-Americans faced this discrimination in our history, but Asians dealt with terrible threats.
Women as they became more empowered have dealt with discrimination.
Gays and lesbians and transgender citizens have been victims of hate.
My ancestors, the Irish Catholics, faced this, as well as Italians, Germans, Poles, Latinos, Muslims and citizens of many countries of the world have confronted this American story as they came here for a better life. It is a terrible multi-chapter story of American life for many that is still not concluded.
Each time a group rises in America that is different than the white-male, Christian-dominated structure, that “different” group has been victimized by those who are losing bits of their monopoly on power.
And because of the fear present in those losing the power, instead of responding with openness, many have turned to hate and violence. And this violence can be both actions — open or silent — and words.
We look for leaders and people in moments like today and yesterday, who hold megaphones, to quell those fears and not exacerbate the hate so they can still claim “their country” as it was.
Sometimes we get the thoughtful compassionate leaders who understand a diverse country not only makes us better people, but it makes us stronger and more prosperous.
Those people speak to our hopes and don’t demonize someone that might not look like us. These loving leaders see the benefits of an inclusive country and culture, and appeal to people’s better angels, trying to get us through these transitions of change.
However, sometimes leaders arise and look to short term advances by appealing to fear and hate, and point at those different, saying they are the problem.
As we think back on Charlottesville, we need to understand that we are at one of those critical moments. Today we have a leader in the White House who believes in the short-term gains from fear and appealing to people who don’t like diversity in America.
The president not only has equated hateful white racists with people peacefully protesting, but even in his announcement as president he pointed to the scourge of immigration, calling Mexicans “rapists,” ripping into women for their looks, trying to push through a Muslim ban and doing everything possible to make anyone who isn’t a white Christian the enemy.
This message of folks fighting for the country that looks like them over the last few months has gone from the not so subtle words and policy actions, and has moved into a clear and concise message of racism.
Laura Ingraham, a Fox News anchor, on a recent broadcast stated this viewpoint very succinctly when she said, “In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.” You don’t need Rosetta Stone to translate this: She is saying America is becoming less white, less Christian and, for her and many others she speaks for, that is what they think America is.
Venture back in history a bit, and these same words were said about nearly every group that came to America, or who rose to some level of power in America, different than the people in power.
It is a sad and hateful part of America. It rose again at Charlottesville and it still is being fought out today.
As the great great grandson of an Irish teenager who came here with no money in the midst of the Potato Famine, it is disheartening and disturbing.
We will get through this moment as a country, and I am hopeful we will be better off as a country. The vast majority of Americans support immigration and believe that a more diverse and inclusive community is beneficial politically, economically, and morally.
I am looking to those leaders to arise, like Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, who pushed back against fear and hate, with hope and love.
Hate will not heal us — only the strength of love and justice can continue to make us a “more perfect union.” And we must not be distracted by the momentary gains someone gets for preaching the politics of fear and hate.
There is a moral majority in America that will ultimately prevail, as it has throughout our history, though there are awful moments where many suffer.
And that moral majority was on Heather’s side in Virginia.