By Mike Smith
In the early 1960s we still had racist state laws defending the widespread practice of segregation. Slowly — too slowly for many black Americans — those laws began to change.
However, racism and bigotry don’t end by changing laws. In many respects, integrating lunch counters, schools and bathrooms is the easy part. The real challenge nowadays is confronting those individuals who have been taught to hate.
Too often, it’s easy to ignore racism and bigotry, because confronting hate brings risks. Perhaps it’s human nature to hope that hatred toward others will somehow fade on its own. But it seldom does: Instead, it usually intensifies with time. If racism and bigotry are left unchecked, those consumed by hate will ultimately become more volatile and more dangerous.
The neo-Nazis and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, were there for one reason: to spread hate. They needed to be confronted. And those who were nonviolent and protested against them deserve to be praised. Tragically, the event did turn violent, and Heather Heyer was killed by the actions of someone who seemed filled with rage and prejudice. But she will be remembered as one who stood up against those promoting racism and bigotry.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump failed to confront hate in the same direct manner as Heather Heyer. Instead of denouncing these hate groups in a timely and unambiguous manner, he muddled his message, and as a result he gave credence to their actions, which legitimized their beliefs. Hate should never be legitimized.
The president believes our country is being ripped apart by a culture war. Certainly, we have endured divisive debates before, most recently in the turbulent 1960s.
In 1963 an assassin shot and killed President John F. Kennedy, and then in 1968 assassins killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In 1968 race riots set our major cities ablaze. In that same year opposition to the Vietnam War was growing to its height as more and more men were drafted and the death toll skyrocketed. And in 1970, four college students were killed by Ohio National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University during a protest of the war. Eleven days later, two more young people died and 12 were wounded in a police shooting at Jackson State in Mississippi.
Indeed, in America today racial tensions are once again high. But most Americans – of all races and ethnicities – believe that our political and economic systems are rigged against them, and as a result some Americans are turning against others — whether minorities or ethnic groups — to place blame. And when this happens hate begins to fester.
Starting in the mid-1970s there was the political will and the political leadership to try to heal our country from the strife of the previous decade. In 2017 that same political will and leadership seems to be lacking. Somewhere along the way we have lost our motivation to heal.
Instead, our two major political parties are in a constant state of political warfare. Each side is focused on trying to vanquish the other. And the rhetoric is vicious. Major national problems sit unattended because a compromise with an opposing party is considered a defeat. An attempt to understand an opposing view is interpreted as lacking conviction for your cause or, worse, disloyalty to a political party.
The neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville — and others planned elsewhere in the United States in the future — reminds us that individual hatred still exists and perhaps is gaining strength.
Politicians who exploit our fears and separate us by our differences must be held responsible for the explosion of racism and bigotry in our country.
In the 1960s film footage of African-Americans peaceably protesting and then being beaten by police, attacked by police dogs and blasted by water from fire hoses shamed our nation into realizing we had a horrible problem that needed to be corrected.
Two questions have yet to be answered as a result of last week: Are the events that unfolded in Charlottesville ominous enough to shock and shame us to demand action from our political leaders? And will our political leaders confront hate and actually address the underlying problems to diminish the influence of racism and bigotry?
Only time will tell if our political leaders will lead, or if they will continue to point fingers.
Mike Smith is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.