The last time I felt compelled to write about whether racist rhetoric is really racist—and why it matters—was just after Martin Luther King Day of last year. A local newspaper had editorialized that the President’s targeting of immigrants and refugees from what he called “s-hole countries” was just an unfortunate but harmless vulgarism.
My former colleague Max King and I felt compelled to point out publicly how absurd that was. We were concerned that a new generation of apologists for hateful rhetoric were just trying to have it both ways, wanting the unfettered freedom to blow racist dog whistles without the accountability of being called on it.
Well, here we are again.
Let’s be clear: When the President tweeted recently that four members of Congress, all women of color, should “go back” where they came from, he was invoking one of the country’s oldest and most enduring racist tropes. Aimed at African Americans for centuries, “send them back” has been a common refrain of white supremacists in every generation since at least the Civil War.
It has been used on every immigrant group, non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic group, and even, just to underscore the monstrous stupidity of it, on Native Americans. It is so obviously racist that it is offered as an example of explicitly discriminatory language by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Every person of color I know can recount stories of being told to “go back where you came from” by white people who, in most cases, have no idea where their targets are from. But of course that’s not the point. This isn’t really about national origin. I am also an immigrant, and yet no one has ever told me, as a white man, to go back where I came from. This is entirely about race, and about who gets to be a “real” American.
As with all racist rhetoric, the point of language like “go back where you came from” is to “otherize” its targets, to marginalize them, and to mobilize forces of white supremacy against them. It conveys a clear and unmistakable message that non-whites are less than full members of the citizenship club to which native-born white Americans presumably have the only legitimate claim.
It is also a call to action, because it invokes white fear that brown and black people, and other minority groups as well, are coming to “take our place.” Remember the chant of the Charlottesville white supremacists: “Jews will not replace us”? The emergence at a recent political rally of the chant “Send her back!,” directed at an elected U.S. official and American citizen, marked a chilling moment of transition, when a movement rooted in whiteness found a new target for its mob hatred, less a person than a type: brown, female, not “us.”
All of which is important to acknowledge, clearly and without equivocation. If America is ever to successfully navigate its changing demographics and address the deep fault lines in its national soul, we cannot acquiesce to a bizarro-world version of reality where words have no meaning and facts are whatever you can get away with saying they are.
It matters to our future as Americans that we call our ugliest fears, hatreds, words and deeds what they are. Every time I walk up the street from my home and pass the still-shuttered Tree of Life Synagogue where a hate-fueled white nationalist murdered eleven innocents for the “sin” of being Jewish, I am reminded of what happens when the flames of hatred are stoked by opportunists who always disavow responsibility for the conflagrations that follow.
Equally important, however, especially for those of us in the social sector, is that we use moments like this to reassert our values and our vision for a better future. In a beautiful and heartfelt post that you can read here, my friend and Barr Foundation president Jim Canales recently wrote that now more than ever:
“We must boldly proclaim the values that unite us, drive us, and bind us to our work of higher mission and purpose. As exhausting and dispiriting as it is to find ourselves at such a moment again, we must persevere. And, as we do, the circle of voices carrying this message of resolve and of hope grows larger and stronger, the best of who we are is manifest again.”
And so at this moment it feels important to say that, at The Heinz Endowments, we continue to believe in our vision for a more just, sustainable and inclusive community, country and world. We believe the path to a brighter future will depend on how broadly we collectively define who is allowed to travel it, that we must create a future for everyone and not just a few.
We know that vision is shared by the organizations we support and by countless others who are working every day to open the doors of opportunity to everyone in our community, regardless of the color of their skin, where they come from, how much money they have, or what name of God they pray to. We will continue to support their efforts to welcome, protect and uplift those who are vulnerable.
As I was reflecting on this post, I came across a poem by Diane Ackerman in Tara Brach’s book “True Refuge.” The poem, “School Prayer,” includes this stanza:
I swear I will not dishonor
My soul with hatred,
But offer myself humbly
As a guardian of nature,
As a healer of misery,
As a messenger of wonder,
As an architect of peace.
To all my friends and colleagues in the social sector, to all those we are privileged to work with, this is you—this is us. Even in a time of outrages, perhaps especially in such a time, the work remains the work—to be guardians of nature, healers of misery, messengers of wonder, and architects of peace.
That is our most daunting challenge right now but also our greatest calling: Not to lose heart, not to succumb, not to fall silent, but to continue through our work to manifest love as the only known antidote to hate.