In a horrific two and a half years, the past few weeks have seen the President hit a particularly low note. I would not have imagined that the holder of the most powerful office on earth would choose to unleash racist taunts at Members of the Congress of the United States. “Go back where you came from.” “No human being” would wish to live in your Congressional district, the place you call home.
This is about as mean as it gets. Actually, it’s beyond mean. When the President openly and unapologetically engages in hate speech, all that’s worst about us and our country is unleashed,
More generations will need to pass before we can erase the great stain upon our nation of slavery and Jim Crow—if we ever will. It will be a long time before we can fully come to terms with the harms we’ve inflicted on our neighbors to the south. Who knows if there will ever be a way to atone for the genocide our white ancestors committed against those to whom this land still rightfully belongs? How are we to apologize to those who came to our shores from Africa, Central America, Asia and were greeted with coldness and contempt? Aimed at people of color, the President’s cruel taunts reverberate across all that painful history; they enrage; and they send us spiraling apart. We all know this. Knowing this is why the racist delights in hate speech.
Those of us who observe and try to reform this country’s mammoth criminal justice apparatus are first-hand observers of the racism that permeates the social order. We see that the so-called “justice” system too often perpetuates oppression of the black and the brown. It is no accident that the death penalty once flourished and continues on in the Deep South; capital punishment is the descendent of the lynch mob. It is not happenstance that the War on Drugs reserved its cruelest penalties for young African American men, even as it left largely unscathed the affluent white youths whose rate of drug use was the same as their black contemporaries.
Criminal justice policies have wreaked havoc on communities of color. It should not surprise anyone that our nation’s jails and prisons are filled almost entirely with black and brown men and women. Much as it should shock and revolt us, it is apparent to any observer that almost all the young men in the lockups behind our criminal courtrooms who crowd around an overburdened public defender begging for a minute of time—are people of color. Is anyone astonished that it is dark skinned young men who are most often the victims of police shootings? It happens this way because our policies have been at best indifferent to these racist patterns.
This is the legacy of our nation’s fraught origins. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as the saying goes. Saddled with these burdens of our history, it behooves us, at the very least, not to make things worse.
The President wants to make things worse. Making things worse in the criminal justice system is one of the pet projects of the current administration: the federal death penalty is being ginned up again; police abuse is being ignored, sometimes celebrated; the Department of Justice has departed the field of civil rights enforcement; whole communities live in fear of arbitrary arrest and detention in the wake of our “crackdown” on illegal immigration (really, on immigrants of color).
All of these policies are about robbing some folks—the poor, the mentally ill, black and brown brothers and sisters—of their humanity. You don’t belong here. You aren’t part of us. This makes it easy to lock people up and throw away the key; to shoot young men down in the street and lie about why it happened; to kill some folks in the name of justice; to torture confessions out of people we despise. Because the ones our system treats like that aren’t fully human in the eyes of the enforcers.
The President glories in this. He desires to motivate his followers to violence and hatred. The President feels free to say to a Latina mother, a Somalian immigrant, an African American person—even if they are Members of Congress, “Go back where you came from.” That’s permission—permission to every angry racist to get a gun and actualize the violence. Does anyone doubt that there is a straight line between the President’s invective and the latest hate-inspired, racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso, Texas? It’s permission to every cop to beat down suspects and rough up arrestees. It’s permission to prison administrators and jail guards to abuse and belittle the prisoners in their custody. The President of the United States is on the side of these abuses—he wants them.
My mother and father taught me to be considerate of outsiders. They expected me to be kind. If a racial epithet was ever spoken in my presence, my mom and dad told me to tell the person he shouldn’t talk like that.
There are a lot of reasons why I do the work I do. One of them is my belief that we have a responsibility to overcome racism—in ourselves and in our institutions. The criminal justice system reflects and perpetuates our racist past. Struggling to make that system incrementally better and to overcome the legacy of racial hatred is an essential project. I’m honored to be a foot soldier in that effort.
The President makes clearer and clearer that he wants to take us backward. At least there is some comfort in having the lines so clearly drawn. At this particular time, those of us who care about a more just criminal system had best persist. There’s never been a more decisive moment. If we don’t fight all out against our racist legacy, that legacy will swallow our souls and defeat our nation.