Hate and Hurt in America: On Charlottesville

by john a. powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society

Like many people, I am deeply bothered by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. I give my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to those who went to Charlottesville to stand up for decency, fairness and equality, who put their beliefs on the line against hate. I apologize to Heather Heyer’s family that we as a country did not do more to protect her life. I hope we do more going forward to honor her and protect the values she gave her life for.

We know there are people, called by various names and euphemisms, that believe in hate and white supremacy—these beliefs and these groups are not new. These people feel threatened by the idea of equality. When a person embraces the concept of supremacy, then equality is viewed as an attack. They believe this country belongs to whites. They believe that having people of color in positions of respect and power is un-American. There has been no greater example of a threat to their belief system than President Obama. It was not Obama’s policies they objected to, but his humanity. These people are dangerous and they must be contained.

However I am just as concerned with the people in power who are complicit with the politics of hate and who are willing to exploit hateful ideologies for their own purposes. While no American political party has a monopoly on the sick and dangerous strategy of supremacy, it has been the mainstay of the Republican Party since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The Republicans’ Southern Strategy played up and played on white resentment of civil rights to move Dixiecrats to the Republican Party. The elites who were architects of the Southern Strategy did not necessarily believe, nor did they need to believe, the racist tropes they were selling when they used dog whistles like “inner city violence” or “welfare queens.” They just needed something strong and sticky enough to woo resentful white voters so that their real priorities involving the removal of government oversight for corporations, and other policies around taxation and distribution, could be passed.

This Southern Strategy has now clearly morphed into a national strategy. But what were once coded messages are now explicit, loud, and clear, and are coming from those in the highest positions of political power. Trump is only one aspect of the national politics of hate. The Republican Party is vigorously rolling back voting rights, gay rights, protection of Native American land, public education, and housing reforms fought for since the beginning of the civil rights movement, and many paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure those rights.

For those who say this is nothing new, I respectfully disagree. There is definitely a clear historical precedent but the coordinates of the moral compass of what’s acceptable in this country are shifting. We are embroiled in a number of current and potential disasters from a callous and mean-spirited president, as well as a Republican party that has lost its values and its backbone. The stakes are raised when the president refuses to publicly condemn white supremacist groups (or is too late and too lukewarm when finally doing so), yet attacks those like Kenneth Frazier, a member of one of his advisory councils, who resigns in protest of the president’s silence over this past weekend. Frazier is African American—what about his white colleagues?

Yet there remains much cause for hope. This hope comes from people like Heather who stand up to hate with love. This hope comes from cities who challenge some of the worst aspects of Trump’s immigration policies. This hope comes from committed organizers who insist on defending the best American values. This hope comes from all who believe in these values and are willing to fight for them. We must continue to organize and participate, but we must do more, especially in the face of organized hate. We must come forward with not only messages but our political parties must build platforms that advance our shared values.

We must protect those who protest and take a stand against hate. These are people helping America be its best self. If we are to pull America back from hate, there must be supporters from all political persuasions, and there must be voices from every race and ethnicity, religion, and faith. If we are to stand for equality and love, we must ground ourselves in a set of shared values, even if they seem only aspirational at times. Values such as equality and fairness are not Republican or Democratic nor are they conservative or liberal. We must defend those values. Maybe the tragedy of Charlottesville will help us cross a line back to sanity and decency.