The Battle for the Soul of America

In Trump’s America, this — Charlottesville — was not only predictable, but was predicted. There are those who said we were overblowing it, that we should give him a chance and see what happens. What has happened is that we have an ever-growing number of hateful people feeling emboldened to spread their vitriol. We have a mushrooming number of hate crimes being perpetrated against Jews, Muslims, and people of color. What has happened is that a woman has lost her life standing up against bigotry inspired by the President of the United States of America. Let that sink in… a woman has lost her life standing up to bigotry inspired by the President of the United States of America.

That is not speculation or hyperbole; that is fact. As Richards Spencer, avowed white nationalist and one of the Charlottesville rally leaders, said, “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.” And he was just one of several far right voices citing Trump as core to their exuberance.

So now, the Battle for the Soul of America is upon us. On one side are those who actually believe in the words upon which our Democracy was founded, “That all men (sadly, women are omitted) are created equal.” On the other side are the forces of evil who espouse the killing of Jews and minorities, mass deportations, and the creation of an ethnically pure, Christian state.

People of Color, please understand that this is not our fight. Let us not abet the racists’ agenda by being pulled into a cycle of violence. No matter how courageous or brave it might seem, it accomplishes nothing. No matter how justified and right you might feel as you physically protect your communities from the invasion of hatred, you will be castigated as an agitator. Further, it is exactly what they want; violence that devolves into an all out race war that further devolves into ethnic cleansing and mass deportations of people of color. Let us not give them what they want by being pulled into violent confrontation.

Instead, we should be aware that this battle is a fight amongst and between white people. And much like in the run-up to the Civil War, or in 1930’s Germany, the lines are being drawn. There was no fight between Germany and the Jewish people. It was a war of ideas between good German people and fascists. Of course it is true that the Jewish people were the subject of the ideological war, but not the primary participants. Similarly, the slaves did not rise up and instigate the Civil War. The war was between Northern and Southern whites who, once again, fought over a moral issue. It is certainly true that slaves and Jews ultimately joined the hostilities, but well after the war of ideas between white people had transitioned to violence.

In the current battle of ideas, people are declaring — explicitly or implicitly — on which side of the line they fall. And as a black man, the question I ask of my white friends, colleagues and family is, “Who will you be in these uncertain times?” On what side of the line do you fall?

The choice has become far clearer now than it was even last November, when many people were convinced that any opposition to Trump was politics as usual. They apparently didn’t understand that he is a multifaceted danger to our democracy. But now, at least to any rational American, it should be absolutely clear who and what we are dealing with. And with that clarity we are afforded the opportunity to once again choose where we stand as individuals.

So… Who will you be?

Some of you will fall into the category of racists. Not necessarily overt racists that march in the street, but mildly bigoted in your approach, words and actions. You may or may not realize it, but it is true. You may be aware of it and at least make an effort to keep it in the closet so as not to undermine your social standing, but you know where you stand. My goal is here is not to convince you of that one way or the other. It’s just a fact. Some people are racists.

Conversely, I see some of you indignant and angry at what you are witnessing. You are vociferous in your criticism and denouncement. You, the Heather Heyer’s of the world, courageously set aside your privilege and argue vehemently for what is right and just. For you it is not just lip service; you live it. I’ve watched your familial bonds become strained as you no longer tolerate the proverbial “racist uncle” at your family gatherings, or refuse to be polite in the face of some of the egregious injustices you see. You bravely speak out under the threat of ostracism from your family, neighbors, friends and fellow congregants. You inspire me, and I am humbled that you would set aside your privilege to defend people like me, all in the name of what is good and right.

And then there are those who take shelter in the ambiguity of silence. You are the people that I am most interested in as I write this. As the storm grows you say nothing, and I wonder on which side of the line you will fall. Do you support me? Will you stand against racism in defense of me and other people of color? As the army of hate masses at the gates, threatening to destroy our national disposition, will you step forward in opposition or will you shrink into the shadows?

You’ve taken great pains to not really discuss your true feelings. Instead you nibble around the edges with carefully crafted academic debates. Should Black Lives Matter protesters block the Bay Bridge? Does civil disobedience have a place in fighting for social justice?

You’ve shared how you think Kaepernick kneeling was inappropriate and defiles the memories of those who fought and died for that flag, and who fought against tyranny. But now, when the flags of the Nazis and of the Confederacy — the very tyranny against which Old Glory led our troops into battle — are being paraded through American streets, your silence is deafening. Do these symbols of tyranny not also defile the memories of our patriot ancestors who gave life and limb fighting against what they represent? Why do you not speak out against this?

Instead, I am once again met with academic debates. This time it is about the right of the white supremacists to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly under the first amendment. I should add that freedom of speech is a right that is not in debate, at least not from me. I believe that we are free to speak regardless how repugnant the message, and that once we abridge that right to speak for some, we abridge it for all. And, I believe, that right is more critical now than ever before in the history of our country.

But I do find it peculiar… when we debated Kaepernick, the argument you waged was one of appropriateness, not of his rights. Now, when the topic is white supremacy the argument is turned away from what is appropriate, and steered toward their constitutional rights. Why do you choose not to apply the same standard of appropriateness to both situations?

So yes, I question you. Your silence is unnerving, and I don’t know whether you are friend or foe.

I’ve heard the responses before and they echo in my head now, “C’mon, you know me. You know I’m not like that” or “I have black people in my family,” as if having a relative marry a person of color serves to inoculate one against bigotry. These are all ambiguous statements with no clarifying quality whatsoever. Where do you stand? Much like the nation is asking Donald Trump to be clear about where he stands, I want to know where you stand.

And don’t get me wrong… I get that it is not easy for you. In fact, it is one of the very few times in life that being a person of color is actually easier than being white. You see, people of color don’t have to make a choice; it was made for us at our very birth by virtue of the color of our skin. It requires no exceptional courage whatsoever for me to proclaim that I am against people like me being threatened or discriminated against. It’s a matter of common sense and self-preservation.

But for white people, it is not so easy. For you to openly disavow racism, or to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism comes with varying degrees of risk, depending on your social circles. And a willingness to face risk takes courage. It is you that must share the Thanksgiving table with that “racist uncle.” It is you that must, against the tide of support within your community for men like Donald Trump, step forward and say to your peers, “This is wrong, and regardless of our policy positions or political affiliations, we cannot allow this hateful ideology to spread and destroy the moral fiber of our country.” It is you that must risk running afoul of those in your communities who would rather you not discuss politics, lest you disrupt the peaceful rhythm of your idyllic lives, and that takes real courage.

After the fall of the Reich, a common theme that Germans shared about their experience was one of silence driven by fear. They assumed that their friends and neighbors were supportive of the Nazi government because no one spoke out against it. We learned that, out of concern for their safety or for not wanting to be seen as unpatriotic, large swathes of the citizenry fell into an abyss of unspoken groupthink, allowing Nazism to become the predominant ideology.

So I encourage you to consider the idea of “thought leadership.” Silence is sometimes a product of feeling as if your words, your ideas, and arguments don’t matter and won’t be heard or respected by those in your circle. But perhaps, in your small circle your words carry far more weight than you know or believe, and that just by speaking them into the vacuum of silence, you become the thought leader. Perhaps you are the one that sets the tone, and those around you will respond to your message of love and inclusiveness, of justices and fairness. Maybe yours becomes the voice your friends and family hear and respond to when you say silence is not good enough, and it is our moral obligation to stand against hatred and bigotry.

You see, the Battle for the Soul of America is not being fought between people of color and white people. It is not even being fought in the streets of Charlottesville or other cities where violent skirmishes are taking place. The battlefront is in your living room when friends and family join you for dinner. It is on the sidelines of your children’s sporting events as you talk to other parents. It is perhaps at the water cooler at your office, or in the pews of your church. If the forces of good are to win this battle, it will be done with the voices of good white people risking their social standing to win the hearts and mind of the vast, ambivalent, and silent middle.