It was shocking recently to see on-line videos of high school students, all white, taunting the players from another, mainly minority, school with chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.” It felt like it was just an isolated event, representative of the ugly nature of the current presidential campaign. In fact, the whole thing was easily dismissed by the next day’s set of events on the campaign trail.
But then I heard a heartbreaking story from my adult niece. Earlier this week, her daughter, who attends a junior high school near Kankakee, was confronted at school by another student. In short, this other student told my great niece that when Donald Trump is president, she will have to go back to Mexico.
So this campaign is no longer just a Saturday Night Live skit for me. This is personal.
A couple of important facts here. Yes, my niece is married to a man originally from Mexico. And, of course, my great niece is an American citizen, just as much as me, you or likely the child who made the thoughtless and ignorant taunt.
That said, I cannot let this event go — largely because it was so devastating for someone that I love so very much. It saddens me and makes me wonder about our society at large — and what role leaders (even those seeking a leadership role) have in trying to tame the monster of bias and hatred which we know always percolates just below the surface of our society. The challenge is compounded by the changing nature of our society — the growing racial and religious diversity, the shrinking availability of well-paying manufacturing jobs for those without a college education and other societal pressures, all of which appear to enhance and magnify the racial, ethnic and religious feelings in some Americans.
I have spent my adult life defending basic freedom, including the right to free speech. It is an article of faith for me that each person, no matter what their viewpoint, has the right to speak without governmental interference. This freedom extends even to those, like Mr. Trump, who seek to manipulate and capitalize on the hatreds and biases that many Americans still harbor. For this reason, I do not propose that we ban or censor Mr. Trump’s speech even though his language and theatrics encourage and authorize precisely the sort of brutal hatred faced by my great niece.
Neither can we turn a blind eye to the real harm done by this. Sitting idly by, treating hatred like a reality television show, and simply scoffing at the latest outrage from Mr. Trump or his supporters is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens. We are headed toward a long, dark summer of hate and misogyny. It will not go away if we ignore it.
Instead, each of us must speak up and confront this scourge. We should remind ourselves, our families, our colleagues and our neighbors that our society is not weakened by diversity but strengthened. We can point out that hatred of any sort never advances the society, it only seeks to pull us backward. This will make for some confrontational and uncomfortable conversations, but who said that being a contributing member of a free society was supposed to be easy?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great of a burden to bear.” In the face of the angry, visceral hatred that is being unleashed on our society by this campaign, it is not enough to stick with love and not give into the hate. We must confront it and speak out against it.
I will be doing that for my niece. She deserves my protection and attention.
Edwin C. Yohnka is the director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. The views expressed here are his own.
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