Words are failing me after Charlottesville. There are too many emotions and thoughts to make sense of. I know this post doesn’t cover it all, but this is where I am today…
A core American strength is our marketplace of ideas. A robust freedom of expression allows room for passionate, open debate with the best ideas rising to the top. A core American weakness is our long history of racism and slavery. The founders of our country couldn’t resolve the tension between these and had to settle on the three-fifths compromise where enslaved people were only counted as three-fifths of a non-enslaved person. Eighty years after that, we fought the Civil War, with the Civil Rights Movement coming another century later. Is America cleansed of our original sin — our history of racism?
The answer is no, and we didn’t need the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville to prove it. Racism and so-called “white supremacy” persist. It is reprehensible. It is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
I remain optimistic, however. Society continues to make progress, even if it is painfully slow. I believe that it is America’s strength — a robust freedom of expression — that keeps the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice for all.
I am bothered by the idea threaded into some of the coverage on the violence in Charlottesville that this is a problem that happened somewhere else. We should be careful with that. Nationalism tinged with racism, and a willingness to overtly threaten people, exists here in Tennessee too.
When I was pursuing immigration-related legislation in June, I experienced some hate firsthand. I decided to not talk publicly about the level of hate then because the legislation wasn’t about me. But I think I should share my experience now.
I received one clear death threat that included my home address, one more generalized threat about having a target on my back, and lots of emails from angry people talking about their rights as citizens and how they think I am a traitor. I know that an immigrant-rights advocate also received a death threat while the bill was pending. In July, I also had someone throw a brick through my office window. To sleep comfortably without worrying about loved ones and co-workers has required concluding that the email senders would not act on their threats, and that the brick thrower was a random vandal.
To be clear, I am not complaining. I signed up to be a public figure. I choose to take positions that I know make some people angry. I choose to keep talking and acting after receiving these few threats. None of this is noteworthy compared to the daily struggle by minority groups in America who live their lives being the “other,” and having to fight, scratch, and claw for success.
In our modern American society, racism and bigotry continue to roil. Issues like poverty, housing segregation, and policing bubble and churn on or just below the surface of our culture. Just a few weeks ago, I wanted to view the few threats I and others experienced as exceptions and not noteworthy. Now I see them as twitching on a seismograph; a warning of what might be coming. Was Charlottesville the eruption, or just a bigger bounce on the seismograph? Will there be a bigger eruption, or will we find our way again and force that arc to keep bending toward justice.
I can’t know for sure. But my faith is in America. My faith is in our freedom of expression, and in our belief that all people are created equal. In all of our major faith traditions, faith without action is meaningless. The same goes for our great American experiment. Each in our own ways, we must act in support of our faith in America. When we exercise our rights, knowledge and ideas and debate beat hate.