Extinguishing the torches of hate
by Michelle Chan, VP of Programs
In November 2015, the group Anonymous exposed hundreds of people, including elected officials, as card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan. They released their data dump with the hashtag #HoodsOff, harkening of a time when white supremacy and racial hatred was a thing of shame and anonymity.
How things have changed.
Today, white supremacists openly march through the streets brandishing torches and chanting racist slogans. We saw it not just in Charlottesville this past weekend, but in the brazen demonstrations that have been cropping up around the country. A big reason for this spike in hate: Donald Trump’s own rhetoric and actions. Shortly after the elections, the Southern Poverty Law Center released reports on the rise of hate crimes in the US, noting that “Many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults, making it clear that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his electoral success.”
But it’s not just Trump’s rhetoric (or lack thereof) which emboldens white supremacists; it’s also the fact that Trump has elevated racists in his Administration. After Anonymous’s exposé, FOE called for “investigations of all elected and public trust officials identified as KKK members and — should the allegations prove true — for the immediate resignations of these officials.” We could not imagine that two years later, openly racist people like Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller would join the White House. We find ourselves in a country where being a white supremacist is a political bonafide, rather than political suicide.
For me — born after the civil rights era — this new era of Trumpism has been an experience of “firsts.” And I don’t just mean what we’ve seen on the political stage.
In April, white supremacists planned a gathering in Berkeley around a planned speech by Ann Coulter on the Berkeley campus, one block from our office. As a woman, it was not the first time I walked on the street with my guard up. As a Chinese-American, it was not the first time I had been conscious of my race in public. It was not even the first time this year white nationalists decided to descend on Berkeley. But the demonstrations were getting bigger, and more virulent, with Nazi salutes and ever uglier epithets.
We find ourselves in a country where being a white supremacist is a political bonafide, rather than political suicide.
As white supremacist groups converged on Berkeley, it was first time I walked down the street with the prickling thought that someone actually might attack me just for my race. For me, living in a majority-minority city, my “Bay Area bubble,” it was a sober reminder for me of what daily life means for people of color living other places. Of what it might mean to join a regular prayer meeting at my South Carolina church. Of what might happen if I were simply driving somewhere with my partner and daughter, pausing at a traffic stop, and reaching for my ID.
Then in December, I decided to go to a local meeting in my town to confront hate crimes. It was not the first time I had gone to a gathering for racial justice. It was not the first time I took my three-year old to a political meeting. But it was the first time my husband questioned me, gently, “do you think it’s a good idea?” The meeting was being organized because a few months before, about three miles from our house, two men jumped a Sikh man in his car, beat him, ripped off his turban, and cut off his hair with a knife.
It was the first time I wondered at what age a Sikh, Jewish, or Muslim mother begins to teach their child that they could be randomly attacked, or even killed, for wearing a turban, a yarmulke or a hijab. It was the first time I wondered at what age I should tell my son that this level of evil exists in the world.
Is three years old too young?
I went to the meeting, and took him with me. I sat in the back, where he could read books and drive toy trucks on the floor. My friend Claudia, a Latina organizer who was helping run the meeting, was relieved; she had to bring her three-year old and now our kids could play together.
That night helped me process what happened in Charlottesville eight months later, and understand what it means to combat hate. For me, four things are top of mind:
Call out hate when you see it — it’s all of our jobs. It doesn’t matter that Friends of the Earth is an environmental group and not a racial justice organization. Silence is no longer okay. Our first action alert after the election urged people to denounce Trump for naming Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist. We didn’t know what would happen, starting our message with “White supremacists have no place in the White House.” But 70,000 of our activists responded. We all need to call out hate not just in our political lives, but in our personal lives: our communities, workplaces, and families.
Allow yourself to be challenged. This moment, when racism is so overt, can also open our eyes to the more subtle ways in which racism is alive in our society, including racial privilege. White privilege, for example, does not mean that white people have easy lives. But it does mean that they generally do not have to walk out the door every day with the realization that they could get harassed, assaulted or even killed because of the color of their skin.
White supremacists have no place in the White House.
Get involved, go to that meeting. There is so much that communities can do to come together and develop creative ways to build solidarity and understanding. A few Christmases ago, a man in our town was arrested for threatening to bomb a mosque five blocks from our house. Dozens of people turned out to support the congregation with expressions of love and solidarity. Mingling with neighbors in the courtyard of the mosque, sharing Christmas cookies and sticky dates, learning about Islam and its traditions — I will always remember it as a holy night.
It’s never to early to take your kid. Some day, when my son is older, I will have a real conversation with him about the existence of racism, the brutality of hate crimes. When I do, I hope he can see in his parents what it is like to treat people with respect, to exalt in diversity, and work for racial justice. And I hope to not hide this conversation from him along the way. I hope to show him the bad in the context of the all the good, all the hope. And I want to be able to say to him that there was a time, when he was very young, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis briefly emerged from the shadows — only to disappear when people of decency and goodwill extinguished the torches of hate.