Aug 30, 2017
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County
As a teenager, I went to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which includes a lifelike recreation of the gas chambers used to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust. As we students left the museum, every single one of us was left wondering the exact same thing: How in the actual hell does something like that happen?
We studied the Holocaust in history and English class. We came to realize that genocide can only happen if you treat fellow human beings as less than human. It can only happen when you start to treat specific groups as “others.”
“Othering” is very dangerous. And we must not “other” the white supremacists who carried torches recently in Charlottesville. Those white supremacists COME FROM US. They are the strange fruit of a society that only reads news sources which reinforce their own worldview. They are the outcome of a culture that scrolls over the stories about Syrian refugees and clicks instead on the cute cat story. They are the product of an America that pretends it’s a colorblind melting pot society, rather than acknowledging that we’re a patchwork quilt in which some colors have advantages over others.
They are what happens when good people don’t stand up and challenge them. If we don’t stand up, then sooner or later we’re going to be a bunch of good/sad people left looking at a disaster in the rearview mirror wondering “How the hell did something like that happen?”
Put another way, we – the people who are rightfully shocked and repulsed by the happenings in Charlottesville, and by our president’s lack of immediate condemnation – must actively fight the impulses and social pressures that lead to white supremacy movements. We have to stand up and say This Isn’t Right. We can’t just click on the next cat story.
Look: A human being can rape a pregnant woman with a bayonet (see: Holocaust, Darfur, Rape of Nanking) or plant milkweed to feed a migrating monarch butterfly. The difference between the two acts, fundamentally, is empathy. Empathy is something that must be exercised in order to be effective. It’s not always easy to see the common ground in humanity. It takes work to see ourselves in other humans (let alone in other life forms).
So I challenge you to stand up and speak out when you see injustice – even if that injustice is perpetrated against people who don’t look or speak like you. But I also challenge you to practice compassion. I challenge you not to demonize and mock the people who cause injustice… but rather to challenge them, and equally importantly, to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. We must address the root causes of white nationalism so that more people don’t turn into white nationalists.
Maybe these people weren’t challenged at the playground when they laughed and called the shy boy “gay.” Maybe their parents repeatedly told them that black people are poor because they don’t bother to work, and when they grew up, no one bothered to teach them the truth. Maybe they’re scared and frustrated because they have no economic security or community identity, and they want someone to blame.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to hazard a guess that you don’t self-identify as a racist, white supremacist neo-Nazi. But how do you feel about immigrants? How do you feel about homeless people? Do you find these populations invisible, a hassle, a threat to you – or can you see their humanity? A broken system has led to millions of undocumented immigrants and thousands of homeless on our streets. Do you want to fix the system, or just throw the whole damn thing away?
Nothing will change if we don’t figure out why white supremacists are marching, unhooded, in America. And the system will never get fixed if we simply say it’s a waste of time and throw it away. The President said there are two sides to our country.