Hate in Chapel Hill

We’ve had way too many murders of young people in this country that were based simply on hatred of difference. Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, 1964; Vincent Chen, Detroit, 1982; Matthew Shepherd, Wyoming, 1998; and now Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Dean Shaddy Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 in Chapel Hill. These beautiful, engaged, caring young people lost their lives to a man who discarded their humanity. They were Muslim, American, young, idealistic, and innocent, and their lives were taken away by a vile and deliberate act of violence. All of America weeps for them.

Student organizations on my campus called for a candlelight vigil Wednesday evening in memory of these three beautiful young people, and several hundred people came together in the freezing rain to share their sadness a this tragedy. Leaders of student government, the Muslim Student Association, Arab Student Union, and a few other groups spoke very movingly of what these murders meant to them. “These were young people just like us, devoted to their community and wanting to provide service through their actions.” “They were murdered because they were Muslim.” “Can this happen to any of us?” And most poignantly, “Never again”.

The vigil was well attended by students and alumni as well as members of the Muslim community in Dearborn. (Many had heard of the plan for the vigil through Facebook.) Circulating through the crowd I found many friends, many alumni, and many of our current students, all engaged in quiet, thoughtful conversations. Though many of the attendees were Muslim and Middle-Eastern in heritage, there were also a significant number of non-Muslims who wanted to share the grief we all experienced at this horrific news. The vigil truly brought our university community together in an emotional and healing way.

One of the community partners that participated in the vigil was ACCESS, a highly effective community-based organization in Dearborn. ACCESS is participating in a national grassroots movement advocating that we “take on hate”, and former Michigan state representative Rashida Tlaib delivered this message in an especially timely way. “Take on Hate” is a movement aimed at helping young people gain the tools to recognize and confront hate in a constructive way. They make the valid point that hatred breeds violence, and small manifestations of hatred become greater if left unchallenged. So we should “take on hate” when we see it. True that!

It is hard to hate people with whom you have meaningful, sustained relationships. This is one reason that the many dimensions of segregation in our country are so damaging. Separation breeds mistrust and animosity. But it takes more than interaction to build a trusting and respectful relationship. It takes an open mind and a fundamental understanding of the value that comes to all of us from a more inclusive community. And this comes about only through deliberate and effective work at every level.

College campuses are great places where we can work towards building that greater level of inclusiveness. But all too often, college campuses remain as internally separated as the rest of society. Many universities have achieved diversity without inclusion. It takes a conscious, widespread effort to build inclusiveness across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. And most importantly, it takes students and student organizations themselves to embrace this goal.

This is one of the reasons that many of us on my campus are so proud of our students and their organizations. The goals of mutual respect and inclusiveness are broadly shared among our students, and organizations like the Black Student Union, the Muslim Student Association, and the Arab Student Union play a leading role in building bridges across racial and ethnic groups. And our student leaders show a maturity beyond their years when it comes to framing strategies for enhancing inclusion and building a genuinely democratic learning environment. (Student Government’s “Inclusion Week” this month is a great example, with genuinely engaging activities that bring in a wide swathe of our students.)

It is too much to hope that hateful violence will never again occur in our country. But it is not too much to expect that we will make progress in the next twenty years in building strong, multi-racial and multi-religious communities that are able to maintain their democratic values even in times of hardship like today. And taking on hate will be a crucial part of that progress — calling out the covert language of racism and intolerance whenever we see it.