President Donald Trump’s racist comments this past week about immigrants and countries with majority populations of people of color are beyond degrading. His comments are deeply hurtful to millions of Americans and people from countries across the globe.
His words are disgusting. But his words are also dangerous.
The escalation from words of bias to violent hate crimes is affected by who says those words. When leaders express bias, the risk of escalation is even greater. When the president of the United States speaks words of prejudice, the risk is that people who share his views will feel justified in speaking similar words. The risk also is that some people will not only speak the words of hate, but act with threats, violence and even deadly violence.
For almost 27 years, I have worked to protect the civil rights and human rights of people in the United States and other countries. Racism and other forms of bias are deeply destructive.
Sadly, I have met with too many people whose lives have been shattered by violence motivated by bias. I have heard these stories from women, men and children in Maine, elsewhere in the United States, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and other countries across Europe.
When I led the civil rights unit in the Maine attorney general’s office in the 1990s, I saw a pattern. Violent hate crimes against people of color, LGBTQ people, women, Jews, Muslims, immigrants and refugees, and others did not spring out of thin air. Rather, they occurred through a process of escalation from the routine use of degrading stereotypes and slurs, plus one other thing: no one spoke up to condemn those comments.
When people who use degrading language do not hear someone speak up, they assume everyone agrees with their views. Some of these people will decide that engaging in more disturbing words, threats or even violence also will be met with approval.
I have spoken in the U.S. and elsewhere with victims of this escalation who have experienced hateful graffiti, desecration of mosques, synagogues and churches, threats of violence, sexual harassment and sexual assaults, and violence with fists, baseball bats, kicks from booted feet, firearms and in one instance a bomb under a car that fortunately did not explode.
I also have seen the impact of hate on its targets: depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicides.
So what can we do. Talk to our children about President Trump’s hurtful, inaccurate and biased remarks. But we can do more. We need to speak up in our workplaces, at athletic events and at family gatherings.
And what do we say? I talk to young people about bias. A number of years ago, I asked a third-grade student whether he heard degrading words in his school about people who are gay or lesbian. He said yes. I asked if anyone spoke up when those words were used. He said yes. I asked who does this. He looked up and said “I do.” I asked him what he said, and his response was, “Please don’t use those words around me.”
Five months later, I asked this boy if he still needed to speak up. He said, “No. No one uses those words around me anymore.”
Steve Wessler led the civil rights unit in the Maine attorney general’s office from 1992 to 1999. He lives in Bar Harbor.
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