Charlottesville: Our Children Are Watching

Twitter’s most shared post in its history is this one by former President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

Obama began the post with the quote from Nelson Mandela, which in its entirety reads:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

The quote by Mandela is perfect, but what also struck a cord in people across the world is Obama’s choice of his accompanying picture is that of him with children of different races. People inherently understand that children are not born with hate and malice toward others. In fact, they are born with a profound sense of fairness.

According to professors Katherine McAuliffe, Peter R. Blake, and Felix Warneken in an article entitled “Do Kids Have a Fundamental Sense of Fairness?” in Scientific America:

. . .children, even young ones, show remarkable sophistication not just in their understanding of and conformity to norms of fairness but also in their ability to enforce fairness in others and to flexibly tune fairness to different situations. These exciting developments dovetail beautifully with work showing that adults are often fair even when they could be selfish, and suggest we need to overhaul the notion that humans are fundamentally out for themselves at the expense of others. Instead, we should adopt the idea that fairness is a key part of our developing minds from as early as they can be studied.

However, children watch. Children listen. And children emulate. Hate and malice are learned traits.

This is why it is so important that our nation’s leaders stand up for justice and fairness, speak out against hate and violence, and support diversity and equality. These principles are the things that make America great.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush get it. Here was their statement post the violence in Charlottesville and death of a young woman by a white supremacist:

America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.

This is why it is so disheartening and disturbing that President Donald Trump does not seem to get it. There are not “many sides,” as he said, to any debate about neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists.

Fortunately, on a bipartisan basis, many of our nation’s leaders have responded appropriately to condemn the hate and violence that we have witnessed since Trump was elected. For example, here are examples from Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Val Demings (D-FL).

Unfortunately, despite his constant protests about the media, President Trump has the bully pulpit and his words matter the most. We expect our president to speak out and provide some clarity about what is right and wrong here. Every now and then, the President shows signs of doing the right thing. In his Phoenix rally speech last week, he started off by saying:

We all share the same home, the same dreams and the same hopes for a better future. A wound inflicted upon one member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all.

There is a statement that embraces what most Americans believe this country is all about and would embrace. If only he would stop there.

But unfortunately, he didn’t. The next 77 minutes of his rally speech was full of the divisive rhetoric against the media, his perceived opponents (both Democrats and Republicans), and immigrants (particular Hispanics and Muslims) that Trump turns to time-and-time again to rally his “base.”

Strangely, he also spoke somewhat favorably about North Korea’s President Kim Jong Un. In contrast, he indirectly criticized both Arizona’s Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) while publicly congratulating himself as being “presidential” for not specifically saying their names (because his aides advised him not to do so).

He trashed the media — repeatedly. For example, he said:

It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions, and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions. And yes, by the way — and yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that. . . .
I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that.

Whose history and heritage is he referring to here? Considering that these statements followed his remarks on Charlottesville, by history and heritage, does he mean revering the Confederate statues of white men who took up arms against the United States of America in defense of slavery?

With respect to the infamous border wall, Trump fails to acknowledge that it is both divisive and strongly opposed by a majority of the people who live along the U.S.-Mexico border. Furthermore, Trump is now demanding Congress pay for it even though he promised that Mexico would (but they won’t). In fact, he is now threatening to shut down the government over it:

But believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.

As for his expressed support and pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he signals that racial profiling and injustice are acceptable behaviors from government officials. As Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic:

The pardon that Donald Trump granted Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, sends this message to American law enforcement: if you violate the civil rights of Latinos while enforcing immigration law, the president of the United States approves — and even if you’re one of the vanishingly few sheriffs or police chiefs that the Department of Justice charges with a crime, he’ll intervene to spare you.
The pardon is thus a slap in the face to Latinos, and ought to be an affront to all fair-minded Americans who value the Constitution, the rule of law, and the legitimacy of the system.
For American citizens who look Mexican, or Guatemalan, or El Salvadoran, or Columbian, the pardon creates new vulnerability to racial profiling and other violations of the 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the law.

What the President fails to understand is that he is supposed to bring the American people together. Trump has done the exact opposite, as hate groups in our country appear to be on the rise.

They, in fact, feel emboldened by his words and actions, and their words often parallel his.

At a CNN town hall conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Speaker was asked the following question:

Knowing that you’re a devoted father yourself, how do you reconcile the words and the actions of the current administration when talking to your children?

Speaker Ryan responded:

. . .I think it’s really important that we lead by example, raise our children, teach them right from wrong. And honestly, I tell my kids to turn off the TV and get off the Internet. I think that’s the most important thing you can probably do these days. So that’s what — that, to me, is what I do.

While I strongly agree that we must “lead by example” and “teach them right from wrong,” I don’t support the notion that we should encourage children to turn away from the news and current affairs. As educator Arthur Camins explains:

The reasons for children to develop and employ a critical perspective are timeless. Empathy should be a universal value that is reinforced in school. Students’ need to understand and question the world around them is even more compelling today than it was twenty-five years ago. The global challenges that face humanity — peace; climate change; environmental degradation; economic, social and political inequality; sustainable development; health and food security — will get answered one way or another. What and how children learn in school will influence whether they contribute to solutions or become the hapless victims of the decisions of others.

The fact is that racism and bigotry are alive and well in this country. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer by a white nationalist is not an isolated incident. To prevent the movement from spreading to other potential young Americans, the next generation must be fully informed and engaged in this debate, as they will be asked to be part of the solution since our nation seems to keep relitigating and fighting the Civil War — generation after generation.

For example, in a must read article by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in GQ entitled “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof,” she explores how Roof came to embrace white supremacy, made numerous pilgrimages to Confederate monuments (“the route looked like a cat’s cradle strung out by evil”), purchased a gun (which should have been denied by the FBI because he had a criminal record and lied on his concealed weapon application), “friended” 88 people on Facebook and brought 88 bullets with him to the church (which is white nationalist code for “Heil Hitler” as the letter “H” is the 8th letter of the alphabet), and walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, to murder nine African-Americans in Bible Study class in 2015.

Glahsah writes:

The white supremacists of today, having been kicked off Twitter, often have Instagram bios that offer an eerie good-bye to their opposition: Good night, left side. And there are thousands of them. Like Roof, and unlike a typical ISIS recruit, they don’t have handlers or any centralized way of becoming hooked. Instead, they are brought into the fold because they have found something that explains their laggard social progress to them and confirms their narrow worldview as fact.
They are young, they are white, and they often brag about their arsenals of guns, because these are the guns that will save them in the coming race war. They are armed to the teeth, and almost always, they are painfully undereducated or somewhat educated but extremely socially awkward. . .
This new generation thrives off of subtext — small cues, images of a cartoon frog called Pepe, reconverted swastikas that can go undetected. And they view the transmission of these cues as a kind of trolling of their enemies. It is like the passing of a note behind the teacher’s back. Roof even wore shoes to federal court that were decorated with neo-Nazi codes and Klan runes. He thought himself part of a secret fight for the future, in which, Roof wrote, he imagined he would one day be pardoned by a sympathetic president.

Explaining his theory that he would be pardoned, Roof told two different experts evaluating his mental state that he would be “pardoned in four or five years” or “rescued by white nationalists after they took over the government.”

In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb explains:

Dylann Roof, in writings found during a search of his prison cell, imagined himself the last stalwart of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. He wrote that “segregation was not a bad thing. It was mostly defensive.” (When investigators asked where he got his information, he said, “It’s all there on the Internet.” He had found the Council of Conservative Citizens Web site, which descended from the old White Citizens Councils.)

This is why we cannot just ask our children to simply turn away from the news. There are forces of evil who are mobilizing and reaching out to our young people in an effort to spread division, hate, and malice toward others.

As the author Maya Angelou said:

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.

Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League, adds that there are clear steps that we should be taking to help educate our children. She writes:

Parents and educators have a responsibility to be role models in standing up to and condemning hate and bias, like the bigotry we saw over the weekend in Virginia. Begin at an early age to discuss bias, discrimination and injustice with young people. Help them understand how bias and hate escalate. When behaviors and rhetoric like belittling jokes, stereotypes and insensitive remarks go unchecked, they can lead to actions with serious consequences such as bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence. . . If we do that, they will grow into adults who can think critically and successfully live and work in our multicultural and global world.

For the next generation and the future of our country, it is important that we raise our voices in support of justice, empathy, and diversity. As former Vice President Joe Biden recently wrote:

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.
The giant forward steps we have taken in recent years on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America.

He adds:

This is a moment for this nation to declare what the president can’t with any clarity, consistency, or conviction: There is no place for these hate groups in America. Hatred of blacks, Jews, immigrants — all who are seen as “the other” — won’t be accepted or tolerated or given safe harbor anywhere in this nation. . .
The greatness of America is that — not always at first, and sometimes at enormous pain and cost — we have always met Lincoln’s challenge to embrace the “better angels of our nature.” Our history is proof of what King said — the long arc of history does “bend towards justice.”

And Biden concludes:

You, me, and the citizens of this country carry a special burden in 2017. We have to do what our president has not. We have to uphold America’s values. We have to do what he will not. We have to defend our Constitution. We have to remember our kids are watching. We have to show the world America is still a beacon of light.

Yes, the children are watching, and frankly, we cannot say that we weren’t warned.