How much viler a place had Jewish people been compelled to use their tax dollars to establish and maintain the upkeep of such monuments, memorials and flags?
How much viler had Jewish people been shouted down every time they expressed discomfort or disgust at being forced to honor those who deemed them less than human and burned alive those who came before?
Imagine the world in which the Nazi flag flew above statehouses and in front of courtrooms where Jewish people had to petition to secure their rights and face the criminal justice system, and news organizations presented the debate as “heritage vs. hate.”
Imagine a world in which historians and pundits argue against the removal of statues designed to honor Adolf Hitler from the public square because it would be akin to erasing history, or that most of the public would agree with them.
Imagine that a kind of transparent, transactional bigotry was not enough to keep a candidate from winning the White House.
That world exists; it’s called 21st century America.
It’s just that the memorials, monuments and flags honor men who beat and raped and murdered other men and women during legalized slavery on our soil then spent nearly a century lynching them and violently rioting every time the oppressed made significant progress.
The deadliest mass shooting in this country wasn’t when Stephen Paddock took to a 32nd floor hotel window and began gunning down Americans enjoying a country music concert in Las Vegas; the Elaine race riot in Arkansas—where between 100 and 800 black people were killed on sight by a white mob because white people didn’t like black farmers trying to organize to attain fairer settlements—was worse.
The Tulsa race riots of 1921 were sparked by a report in an Oklahoma newspaper that a black man had tried to rape a white woman in an elevator—when all he had done was accidentally stepped on her foot. Like a Category 5 hurricane, about 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed by an angry white mob. As many as 300 people were killed.
There were others, several others. But most Americans know little about them, or how large crowds of white people, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, stood around to watch black men and women be hung from trees. Most have never heard the name Mary Turner, a pregnant black woman who was lynched—her still-developing fetus cut from her stomach and stomped on the ground in broad daylight—because she had the temerity to question those who had lynched her husband.
But bigotry hasn’t only shown itself throughout our history in such obviously horrific ways. It showed up in housing policies and social welfare laws, and even the implementation of the G.I. bill, policies that pulled white Americans out of poverty while leaving people of color behind. It showed up in places like Myrtle Beach, where white men would help the children of black maids go to black colleges but refuse to sell property in good areas to black people while adhering to dictates of Jim Crow. It showed up in the likes of Strom Thurmond, one of the country’s longest-serving U.S. senators, who boldly preached segregation and inequality publicly—knowing it was the best way to gain votes—while secretly fathering an interracial daughter. And, yes, it even showed up at Davidson College, where black slaves were used on campus.
Today, we can’t fathom how so many people could stand and cheer at the dangling feet of black men and women as ropes around their necks sucked the life out of them, can’t fathom how white mothers and fathers breezily took their children to participate in such spectacles. Not too long from now, those who come after us won’t be able to fathom how Betty Shelby, a white Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer could shoot an unarmed black man because she was scared, be acquitted by a jury of her peers and then receive another job as a police officer before a black man named Colin Kaepernick could find another job as an NFL quarterback because he decided to peacefully protest to highlight police brutality.
They won’t be able to fathom how we went from electing the nation’s first black president to the man who spent five years leading a bigoted national crusade to question if that black man was even fully American. They won’t be able to fathom a lot of the things that too many of us are casually allowing to become new norms because too many of us spend too much time scurrying for comfort instead of mustering courage. They will wonder why more of us didn’t answer the bell.
They will ask why more of us didn’t know there is a time for comfort, and a time for clarity, and that we lived through a period in which clarity was a necessity, comfort a luxury we couldn’t afford.
It is not OK that a 59-year-old married father of daughters bragged about sexually assaulting women. It is not OK that 63 million Americans were so unmoved by all manner of things he said and did and proposed—called for a banning of all Muslim immigrants; declared Hispanic heritage a disqualifying trait for a federal judge; deemed white supremacists very fine people, and so many other things—that they made him the most powerful man in the world any way.
It is not OK that it took the blood of nine black people murdered in a black Charleston church to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. It is not OK that we make young black and brown kids go to schools named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
It is not OK that an unapologetic fight for equality seems to offend many Americans more than an ever-present inequality does.
It is neither political partisanship nor political correctness to say so. It is truth. Or it is a truth America has long wanted to believe about itself.
At some point, we must decide who we are—a people more concerned with pretty words and powerful symbols, or the things for which those pretty words and powerful symbols supposedly stand.
What we do today, what we allow to become new norms, will determine if they ever stood for the things for which so many have sacrificed.
We need clarity. Shying away from stating plain truths won’t get us there.