We have moved now nine days from our Presidential election here in America, and tomorrow you all will travel into the country and world in need of goodness, civility, and discernment. We are now living in a time where, in the words of New York Times writer Thomas Friedman, "we need to be aware of the fragility of our democracy." We cannot merely assume that it will snap back into shape, into a coherent whole. To heal our division, return to our senses, learn from history, and embrace new unity in this country, we are going to have to work together. Friedman quotes Lesley Goldwasser, who came to the United States from Zimbabwe: "You Americans kick around your country like it is a football. But it's not a football. It's a Fabergé egg. You can break it."
I ask you tonight, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, to start the healing, the communicating, the uniting.
What we need to be worried about right now is that the fire, vitriol, and anger of the election unleashed forces of hatred and division that lie dormant in every country and culture. In periods of economic dislocation, sudden technological and cultural shifts, the forces of intolerance and division invariably see their opportunity and move in to capitalize on fear, emptiness, and frustration. These forces are always alert and eager to exploit such openings, and in the world of mass communication and social media, they can spread their poison on a massive scale. And this perversion of humanity is spreading across the world right now, even in places that witnessed profound atrocities in their histories, rampages that had their source in these expressions of hate and intolerance.
Here is how several authors describe this current global and national economic phenomenon, this moment of vulnerability:
The Dalai Lama: In the United States, Britain, and across the European continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about their future ... In America today, compared with 50 years ago, three times as many working age men are completely outside the work force. This pattern is occurring throughout the developed world and the consequences are not only economic. Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.
New York Times writer Jill Filipovic: Male identity remains tied up in dominance and earning potential, and when those things flag, it seems men either give up or get angry ... Working class white men though, have seen many of their connections to society severed -- unions decimated, jobs lost, families split apart or never formed at all -- destroying their social status and leaving them increasingly isolated.
Professor Katherine J. Cramer, University of Wisconsin, Madison: I have heard this so often. People at the university are elitist and arrogant and have no respect for ordinary Wisconsinites.
Novelist Diane Johnson: Is it identity politics that have drained our sense of community so that people don't mind, or even enjoy defying the conventions of civil discourse and peaceful government?
Senator Bernie Sanders: Working Americans can't afford decent quality child care for their children. They can't send their kids to college, and they have nothing in the bank as they head into retirement. In many areas of the country, they can't find affordable housing, and they find the cost of life insurance too high. Too many families exist in despair as drugs, alcohol, suicide cut their lives short.
President Obama - (Speaking in Greece this week): If people feel like they are losing control of their future, they push back. We've seen it here in Greece and across Europe.
Bryan Stevenson: We've got this mass incarceration problem. One in three black male babies is expected to go to prison ... we have got a lot of work to do in America to become the kind of society that we claim to be. We have historic poverty, historic disenfranchisement. The tensions between communities of color and the majority are, I think, worse than they've been in a long time.
David Brooks: I think white voters also wanted some sense of dignity, some sense of being heard. There is something noble, in people who felt marginalized, working class voters taking their party from what had been a corporate party and then asserting their will on this country, against groups of people who were more privileged than they are, both on the left and the right.
We see it now, right? We have economic insecurity, a lethal combination of rapid and comprehensive change and dislocation, and a lot of people who feel deserted, left out, invisible, disrespected.
We have to find ways to address these challenges, design thoughtful policies and opportunities for regeneration of our economy. All of us, red and blue, liberal and conservative can do this together.
But we have to understand at the onset that the very questions we are asking about our economy often influence the ways we think about and approach human rights. This makes little rational sense, but when sections of our economy suffer, when men and women face unemployment, rapid change, and familial disintegration, they look for irrational reasons, people to blame, populations to attack, demonize, and exclude. One of the most noble purposes of schools, colleges, and religious organizations is to learn from and remember the tragic history of moments in human history when the Other has become the irrational but indisputable center of our pain, resentment, fear, and loathing.
We have to make the intelligent case through conversation, through education, through religious traditions, through the family, through the community that social and human equality and freedom are not the source of the pain Americans and Europeans feel. We have to suggest that the solution to our problems does not involve the escalation of hate but rather the escalation of hope.
We can create big government, small government, flat taxes, or taxes designed for the redistribution of wealth. We can have an activist foreign policy or one that focuses only on American interests at home. We can engage in the most wide ranging debates on our policies, plans , initiatives .
But we cannot have a civil society, a democratic society if our language, attitudes, and perspectives demonize one another -- or worse, demonize and attack groups in our society that have endured this kind of madness for a very, very long time.
Our own history and world history are littered with examples that tie economic and national dislocation to the cultivation of scapegoating, intolerance, and violence. That is partly because we allowed these forces to fester and grow and partly because the human capacity to despise the other is so enshrined in our human minds. This is where America cannot go in the next few months.
A loud, eager, and tiny minority has seized upon the current fears and anxiety of the American or global economy unleashing attitudes and threats and slurs that undermine our sense of collective safety, identity, and respect. And sadly, in the words of Jonathan Greenblatt, Chief Executive of the Anti-Defamation League, social media allows these voices "to spread their venom with a velocity and volume that was never before possible." In other words, the modern world has given hate groups the power to amplify, magnify their puny voice and cowardly message.
If it takes only a second for a hate group to poison discourse, it has taken a long time for us to build human rights commitments in our country and world. This hard earned sense of safety, this sense of belonging, this sense of dignity emerged in this country from the heroism and sacrifice and patience and suffering and hope of so many we know about in history and so many we do not know. The groups in America who faced oppression and exclusion have celebrated inclusion but always have wondered and worried how permanent American and global commitments actually are.
The fragility and fear we sense from our friends and colleagues who are women, who are of color, who are immigrants, who are Muslim, who are Hispanic, who are Jewish, who are members of the LGBTQ communities come from their memories, current outbreaks of discrimination, and their fears that these human rights commitments are somehow tentative, fragile -- not permanent.
The voices of intolerance jump into the gap quickly, announcing in words and in threats that they have the power to wind back the clock, that demonizing, insulting, attacking the other will make themselves and their disciples happy, successful, and fulfilled. They are selling a creed, a belief system, an agenda that has already created human rights abuses that are shameful, devastating, and merciless. They prey on citizens who desperately seek answers to the pain and dislocation they feel. "We will get you out of this pain, they promise, but first join us in the attack on the other."
And so we see increases in people over the last few days testing the waters, doing the kind of things that are creeping into communities in Europe: maybe, they seem to be saying, it is time to intimidate and threaten, to burn a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab, maybe this is a time to find a Trump supporter, throw him to the ground, hit him, and scream, "you hate Mexicans"; maybe it seems a good time to threaten three Penn freshmen of color with lynching, maybe this is a time for a person to defecate on a Trump sign, maybe this is a good time to tell a Black policeman in New York City, "you're next," making shooting motions with his hands, or maybe this is a good time to post on a Neo-Nazi website that brown people need to be intimidated.
At St. Andrew's we can become too casual and comfortable with words, phrases, jokes that quite simply do not meet the culture of respect we say we stand for. In a recent meeting with two student leaders I respect, Jaryd and Gen expressed their hope that the St. Andrew's community would be consistent, authentic, and clear in our rejection of language and terms that make fellow students uncomfortable. They suggested that nothing should ever threaten, undermine our commitment to basic human ethics. They suggested we have to have our own internal act together before we minister to social justice in the world, before we welcome Bryan Stevenson to our school.
For Stevenson, the teasing to life of bitterness, alienation, violence, and scapegoating is as old as our history of slavery, our history of lynching, our system of segregation, our system of mass incarceration. He suggests that one form of oppression for people of color barely subsides before a new code of oppression unfolds.
As an attorney and advocate for his clients, Stevenson knows all too well the ravages of poverty, economic dislocation, despair, and neglect, and he has seen directly how savage the forces of unleashed scapegoating and intolerance can be. He argues that mercy and grace can only be achieved in America when we look with clarity and courage at the depths we have gone to oppress the lives of citizens in our history.
To help us all understand the legacy of hatred in America, he has done work to document 4,100 lynchings that took place in the American South from 1877 to 1953. These lynchings (hangings, shootings, beatings) became public spectacles, public entertainment, civic celebrations and were brought to an end only through the intervention of the federal government. The lynchings represented a specialized form of hatred and resistance to the very concept of American equality and democratic progress. The lynching process was the South's answer to the party of Lincoln and vision of Frederick Douglass.
Bryan Stevenson has a soil collection project in Alabama -- the effort is to commemorate the lives lost and the violence that desecrated these communities over and over again. The dignity and innocence and memory of those murdered cry out to us for justice; the crimes against humanity perpetrated on our own soil remind us that we can never, ever, enter that road again. New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin describes the work of Stevenson's project:
The volunteers headed out in small teams to fill gallon size jugs with soil from the sites of the 363 lynchings that EJI had documented in Alabama. Many of the sites are approximate, and the soil project which has been going on for about a year, is meant to be symbolic rather than scientific. Along the back wall of the room where Stevenson was speaking were about a hundred jugs already filled with soil ... The colors of the soil samples varied from nearly black in the Black Belt communities across the middle of the state to the tan sandy soil from the Gulf Coast around Mobile. The names of the victims and dates of their deaths, which ranged from 1877-1950 are marked on the jugs.
We have worked so hard in America to understand the danger, the threat, the scourge of human hate and division. But we need to be more than familiar with our history; we have to be vigilant, we have to be lighthouses protecting our country from this all too familiar temptation and destination.
Each of the deaths Bryan documents represents a narrative, a life, a family, a hope. Here is the one Toobin shared in his profile:
Ebb Calhoun died on April 29, 1907, in Pittsview, Alabama. After a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, we learned that on the day before his death, Mr. Calhoun's son "reportedly walked between a white man and his daughter in the street, brushing against the woman." The white man proceeded to shove Calhoun's son to the ground--he was insulted by the black man's presumption and according to accounts, "he was annoyed by the boisterousness of a large crowd of negroes" in the town that day.
The next day, Ebb Calhoun made a point of returning to the site of the confrontation in an attempt to protect his son and "take the hit that was meant for him." Indeed, as Ebb Calhoun walked into the area, several white men, including the person who pushed his son to the ground, surrounded him, accused him of firing a shot at a visitor. Then, they "shot him dead."
We need, you see, to be spreading red sand this vacation -- red sand to protect girls, to express solidarity with Sophie Stenbeck's principled and emotional rejection of the trafficking and exploitation of girls, metaphorical red sand to protect our democracy -- red sand to be distributed by liberals, conservatives, the President, and the President-elect. We reject all forms of racism, religious intolerance, bigotry, and violence. We are united, all of us, in this.
For Thanksgiving, let's banish the forces of darkness and hate. Their numbers are minuscule, their voices are loud, degrading, destructive, and destabilizing. Every act of inclusion, exploration, and honoring of difference exposes their cowardice, their emptiness, and their extinction.
Drown them out with goodness, patience, hospitality, love, and kindness.
I will end with the wise words of Ms. Pressman's father, legendary teacher at Hotchkiss:
It's up to all of us (and all of us together) to insist on seeing immigrants, people of color, Muslims, women, LGBTQ people, supporters of Trump no less than Hillary ... as our own, as our brothers and sisters, and to act on that vision.