Virginia Can’t Negotiate With Racists

Opinions & Editorials / August 15, 2019

Two years ago this week, three Americans died at a white supremacist demonstration here in Virginia. In his response to the tragedy, President Donald Trump famously blamed “both sides” for the violence, equating anti-racist protesters with neo-nazis. Now, two years later, the Roanoke Times has borrowed that same rhetoric to push back against my call for direct action in the face of racist dehumanization (“Samirah is wrong. Civility does matter,” Aug. 9 editorial).

The fundamental misunderstanding of the “both sides” mindset is that it views racism as a dirty word rather than a hateful ideology to be stamped out. The Times writes that “Part of Trump’s persona is his basic lack of civility. The corrective to that should not be more of the same…” Trump isn’t harmful because he’s uncivil, but because he pushes racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and a policy platform that systematically harms marginalized people. To compare that kind of “incivility” with peaceful protest is factually and morally wrong. This is exactly why I stood up in Jamestown, and why I criticized “The Virginia Way” in the Atlantic — white supremacists shouldn’t be allowed to get comfortable in Virginia and especially not in our spaces of discourse and policy.

The Times and I also seem to have differing concepts of what “uncompromising morals” means. Mine compel me to speak truth to power and call out racism in no uncertain terms, despite social conventions that deem labeling racists as such “improper.” If the Times does in fact have such a strong moral conviction then do their values prize comfort and civility over equality?

If the comfort of civil discourse really “is for all of us,” then maybe it is worth protecting. The problem is that’s grossly incorrect. The comfort of civility is for the people benefited by the status quo. I can guarantee that there are many people who aren’t comforted when white supremacy gets legitimized. So if one is disgusted by the presence of this bigotry in our Commonwealth, either help or get out of the way — don’t stand on the sidelines, whining about decorum. When actual, honest-to-God white supremacy is knocking at the door, we don’t invite it in for tea. We throw it to the curb.

Lastly, the editorial lauds the compromise and civility that was set up by our system of government, and states that the founders “specifically intended to restrain those ‘strong voices’ pushing ‘bold policies’ when there is no such broad support.” If this were even remotely true, then we would have majorities in the General Assembly for a host of issues we currently do not. 84% of Virginians support universal background checks on firearm sales, yet the Republicans didn’t allow a single vote on a bill during the special session on gun violence. 60% of Virginians think the General Assembly should tackle climate change, yet this year the Republicans blocked even the most modest efforts to rein in greenhouse gases. 71% of Virginians support Medicaid expansion, yet it took almost seven years to elect enough Democrats to get the job done. My call for bold policy is a call to finally act on the solution that the people are hungry for, instead of trying to compromise with folks who clearly aren’t interested.

At the end of the day, what I called for is an end to being polite for the sake of being polite. What I wrote was that in the face of dehumanization, a different code of decorum is called for to drive the hatred out. I never called for the end of thoughtful discussion with those who have legitimate policy disagreements; I actually made a point of its importance. It’s why I find some of the concern expressed in the Roanoke Times’ editorial nothing more than a devotion to the comforts of the current Virginia Way rather than a defense of common decency. The people of Virginia know that common decency includes being resoundingly opposed to racism and discrimination, and I am confident that the people of Virginia are ready to rally behind the new Virginia Way: equity, love, compassion, and progress.

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