Cory on Gun Violence and White Nationalism

Cory Booker
Aug 7 · 10 min read

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC

Watch the speech.

Thank you Reverend Manning and Bishop Green for opening this sanctuary today.

We’re here this morning in the wake of yet another act of hatred in America.

But I come here today because of love.

The kind of love I learned about in church growing up.

The kind of courageous love of people who could love those who hated them, despised them, and cursed them.

A heroic love that pushed people to march knowing they could be beaten, to board buses knowing they could be bombed.

A love fueled by multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalitions that share a commitment to a common cause and to our common destiny.

A radical love that rejects the sinister and dangerous delusion of otherness — a delusion that divides, that weakens, that pits American against American to our own collective peril.

That kind of love is a love that demands honesty.

Because we all know, in both our public and our private lives, that real love demands the truth.

It requires us to admit when we are wrong, to be vulnerable about our mistakes and our contradictions, and to be willing to question what we sometimes hold sacred. This is a lesson I have learned over and over again in my own life.

And to love our country in this moment means we must step outside our comfort zones and confront ourselves.

To ask hard questions and genuinely seek answers.

We need to be honest: about not just who we are, but who we have been.

And that means we need to acknowledge that the very founding of our country was an act of profound contradiction.

Those who sought freedom in so many ways, for so many people, perpetuated its very opposite.

Bigotry was written into our founding documents. Native Americans were referred to as “savages” and Black people as fractions of human beings.

White supremacy has always been a problem in our American story — if not always at the surface, then lurking not so far beneath it.

We have seen it from slavemasters who stole and pillaged Black bodies for profit to demagogues who stoked racist and anti-immigrant hatred for votes, then enshrined their bigotry into laws.

And, yes, racist violence has always been part of the American story — never more so than in times of transition and rapid social change.

We have seen it from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement; from the Red Summer 100 years ago to Charlottesville; From the lynching of people of Mexican descent in Porvenir, Texas 101 years ago to the massacre targeting Latinx people in El Paso, Texas this past Saturday.

To say this, is to speak the truth plainly — because without truth there is no reconciliation.

James Baldwin wrote in the Fire Next Time that “it is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” — silence in the face of these injustices is a choice. To be passive is to be complicit. To ignore hate is to empower it.

It is to fall back on that easy false virtue of tolerance.

To proudly claim that we are a nation of tolerance is no great aspiration.

Tolerance suggests that if you disappeared off the face of the earth, I would be no better or worse off because I was just tolerating you and your difference like I tolerate a cold or a headache.

We are not called to tolerate injustice; we are called to combat it.

We are not called to tolerate each other; we are called to love one another.

So we must acknowledge as a country that as much as white supremacy manifests itself in dangerous and deadly acts of terror, it is perpetuated by what is too often a willful ignorance or dangerous tolerance of its presence in our society.

It manifests itself in a criminal justice system that arrests Blacks at three times the rate of Whites for drug-related crimes despite virtually no difference between Whites and Blacks in the frequency of dealing or using drugs.

In an immigration system that targets Latinx migrants fleeing violence at our southern border, separates families and throws children in cages.

In a health care system that disproportionately fails Black and brown Americans, that dismisses the pain of Black women with deadly consequences, and where undocumented people are afraid to seek care even in crisis — because they fear deportation.

And the twisted irony of this poison is it’s corrosive, it hurts the very people it claims to represent.

White supremacy allows political leaders to promise to “build the wall” — while not building hospitals, schools, or infrastructure.

It talks about the “invasion” of immigrants — while allowing deadly opioids to invade communities and kill our children.

And it creates a dangerous delusion that some among us are outside of our moral concern — that we don’t have to care about those “others,” we don’t have to think about them, that they should express gratitude simply to be here; an idea that some Americans can even be a threat to other Americans just by existing — when in reality we share a common cause and a common purpose — there is only one American destiny.

As a political strategy, weaponizing hatred can be effective — because it seems easy.

Islamophobia, anti-semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny. These tactics aren’t a new perversion of our politics, they’ve been ingrained in our politics since our founding.

Generations of politicians have used fear of the other for political gain, and that is certainly the case today.

Hate crimes in America are increasing. Anti-semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise.

The majority of terror attacks in this country since 9/11 have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists, and the majority of those have been white supremacists.

And these acts of hatred do not happen in a vacuum.

They are harvested only once they have been planted.

Galatians 6:7 reads: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”

You reap what you sow.

The act of anti-Latino, anti-immigrant hatred we witnessed this weekend did not start with the hand that pulled the trigger. It did not begin when a single white supremacist got into his car to travel ten hours to kill as many human beings as he could.

It was planted in fertile soil, because the contradictions that have shadowed this country since its founding remain a part of who we are.

It was sowed by those who spoke the same words the El Paso murderer did: warning of an “invasion.”

It was sowed by those who spoke of an “infestation,” and “rats and rodents” in majority-Black cities.

It was sowed by those who draw equivalence between Neo-Nazis and those who protest them.

It was sowed by a President who spews hateful rhetoric and endangers the lives of people of color and immigrants in this country.

But let’s be very clear: our work is not complete by calling out the shortcomings of our leaders.

It is harder — but it is necessary — to recognize the decisions we collectively make every day that perpetuate this dangerous reality.

Each person, each generation has a decision to make: do you want to contribute to our collective advancement or — through inaction or worse — to our collective retrenchment. To our progress or — through apathy and indifference — to the violence that threatens to tear us asunder? That is the challenge of our generation today. It is the collective crossroads we are at.

People’s very lives are in the balance. And to be frank, the future of the country hangs in the balance.

Which is why we can’t let these conversations devolve into the impotent simplicity of who is or isn’t a racist.

Because if the answer to the question ‘do racism and white supremacy exist?’ is yes,

then the real question isn’t who is or isn’t a racist, but who is and isn’t doing something about it.

It is a question that has deep moral resonance.

Because there is no neutrality in this fight. You are either an agent of justice or you are contributing to the problem.

Addressing this isn’t an act of charity or philanthropy, it is an issue of national security; it is an issue of patriotism — it is an issue of love.

And we can begin to express that love by changing our laws.

Dr. King once said that “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me […] It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”

We have the power to act. And we can act to legislate safety even if we cannot legislate love.

We must act to prevent people who should not have guns from getting them, including passing Jim Clyburn’s legislation to close the loophole that enabled one man to take nine souls from this congregation.

We must act to get weapons of war off our streets, out of our grocery stores, our bars, our temples and our churches by banning assault weapons once and for all.

And look, we’ve done it for cars, we can do it for guns. We must require federal licensing for all guns in America — a policy that we know will save lives.

We must require that the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and FBI conduct asesssments of the domestic terrorism threats posed by white supremacists and report annually to Congress and the public on them.

We must require the FBI to dramatically change and improve reporting of hate crimes and work with local law enforcement to establish policies and training for officers on how to identify, investigate, report those crimes.

We must change our laws, but we must also confront our past.

The truth is — there is another story we can tell about our country. A better story. Not one that ignores our mistakes or accommodates our failures.

And not one that just glorifies singular heroes or the so-called “great men” of our history.

We can tell a story about who we have been without the crutch of illusions, and who we can be … together.

America has shown greatness not because of the absence of violent bigotry and white supremacy but because of our efforts to overcome it.

In truth, ours is the story of the faith we have had in one another. How we have formed multiracial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic coalitions to affirm our most sacred civic virtues, to affirm our common cause and fight for our common destiny.

Ours is the story of abolitionists — black and white who together organized for freedom, knowing, in the words of our beloved Toni Morrison that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.”

Of the women who organized for the right to vote and the men who stood, worked and allied with them.

Of the workers — immigrants and native born who joined together to organize and end child labor and create 40 hour work weeks.

Of the civil rights activists — a rainbow coalition of Americans — who marched and sat in and stood up against segregation and for equality for all people.

It is the story of this sanctuary of faith and fellowship.

Of the Bible verse that speaks to our civic gospel — that whenever two or three are gathered together — He is in the midst.

From the very beginning — yours has been a story about the power of that kind of faith — in God, and in one another.

When your sanctuary was burned down by white supremacists, you rebuilt here on this hallowed soil, with faith in God, and in one another.

When Black churches were outlawed, you met in secret for decades, with faith in God, and in one another.

And when evil showed itself in this church basement four years ago, you again showed that faith, you showed what faith in action looks like.

After those nine souls were taken — Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. The Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, the Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr. and Myra Thompson — You showed us how not to allow hate, when it comes into our lives, to take root in our souls.

Polly Sheppard, Felicia Sanders, Jennifer Pinckney, and all of the family and loved ones of those who were taken — you showed us the freedom that comes with grace, and in forgiveness.

And you granted an entire community the freedom and redemption that comes through love.

It’s with faith in God, in one another, and in who we can be that we come together today.

Not because of hate, but because of love.

I know I cannot separate the office I seek from who I am — but I am not here today to ask for your vote.

I am here today to ask if we have the collective resolve to change the reality we live in.

I am here today to ask if we have it in us to tell ourselves the honest story.

Because we know the truth will set us free.

We know these are not problems that will go away inevitably. This is hard and painful and it will take hard work and sacrifice — that is the nature of love.

We are here today because of our ancestors’ sacrifices.

Because of those who joined together across lines of separation to join in pursuit of our common national aspirations.

They did what was difficult.

Because they had faith. In God, in each other, and in a bolder, broader and more inclusive patriotism. For patriotism is love of country but you can not love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women — all of them.

We now must have the courage to again join together —

We must reaffirm our common bonds in the face of those who seek to rip us asunder.

We must actively affirm our love in the face of rising hate.

We must now dedicate ourselves as our ancestors did to being freedom fighters — for liberty is one of our most sacred civic values.

We must dedicate ourselves to that freedom again.

Now we in this generation, this is our national test — those who peddle hate at home and abroad — those who seek to pit us against each other must not win.

We must now struggle to put more indivisible back into our one nation under God.

We must now do the difficult labor.

We must stand together and work together and struggle together.

For A New American Freedom in our generation:

Freedom from fear,

Freedom from violence,

Freedom from hatred.

Freedom to seek.

Freedom to achieve.

Freedom to dream America anew again.

Once and for all, let us be the land of the free.

There is only one way to get there — together.

And only one way to win — with the power, the healing, and the salvation we find in love.

Thank you for having me here. God bless you, and God bless America.

    Cory Booker

    Written by

    U.S. senator from New Jersey and Democratic candidate for president.

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