Reed: Opposing Hate Speech

Aug 23, 2017

Most of my Vermont neighbors are concerned and well-meaning. And most can’t imagine that what happened in Charlottesville could ever happen here. But white supremacists have been in the Green Mountains for a very long time.

And just lately there’s been an anecdotal spike in Confederate battle flags, swastikas, and other hate symbols on display here, not to mention a disheartening increase in racially and religiously inspired harassment and bigotry in our schools.

What’s more, not every white supremacist displays hate symbols publicly - so for every white supremacist that puts his or her hate symbols out there for all to see, others may be sitting inconspicuously next to you at work or church, giving you a nod on the street, serving as your elected officials or public servants, or even preparing your pizza.

And it doesn’t take much for white supremacy views to spread if everyone else is politically unengaged, merely wringing their hands after each new racially inspired crisis and seeking what amounts to civil rights merit badges by trying to convince the few people of color they know, that they, the well-intentioned, are among the “good” white people.

Now, I’ll admit that combating white supremacy can feel daunting. But here are three, concrete, immediate steps we can all take.

First: we can encourage area schools to teach students how to recognize white supremacy and hate symbols. We can explore how our schools teach topics like the westward expansion, the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, eugenics, the holocaust, Japanese internment, and 911. We can insist that our schools deconstruct racial stereotypes by seamlessly weaving the contributions of explorers, inventors, politicians, visual artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs of color throughout the curriculum. The better educated our children become the more resistant they will be to white supremacy ideology.

Then too, we can pay attention to our public spaces. We can require our towns, chambers of commerce, business and civic organizations to enact policies that no vendor shall display or sell hate symbols on public property or at any sponsored event open to the public.

But in the end, each of us must find the courage to address hate speech, whether verbal or displayed, whenever and wherever we find it. Because failure to do so puts at risk all other efforts to build diverse, inclusive, equitable and economically sustainable communities in Vermont.