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Opening a community conversation on hate, and how to fight it

Attendees at "Exploring Hate: A Conversation" watch clips from The U.S. and the Holocaust
Kevin Woster
Attendees at "Exploring Hate: A Conversation" watch clips from The U.S. and the Holocaust

Sitting in noon mass the other day, I could see where Father Ed was taking us.

Toward a tough place. A really tough place. That “love thy neighbor” place.

Of course, if that were literally what was being asked, to love my actual neighbor or neighbors, I’d be in pretty good shape. I’m awfully fond of my neighbors Rod and Karen, Judy and Steve, Margaret and Joel.

I suppose you could say that I love them, in the way you love good neighbors. They’re certainly lovable enough.

But what Father Ed was asking was more than that. It was Christ’s call to brotherhood, and sisterhood, in that familiar scriptural call:

“A new Commandment, I give to you — that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

And that’s a call to love that extends far beyond our immediate neighbors, to the world beyond.

Which is a pretty demanding call to love. It’s overwhelming when you stop to think about it. It sometimes seems impossible, especially in these days of sharp division and hateful rhetoric and lies, lies, lies. And more lies.

I hate people who lie. I hate people who use division and fear for their own purposes. I hate people who hate.

Er, well, wait. Let me slow down. I think I’m supposed to say that I don’t hate the people who do such things. I hate what they do, and the way they feel. But I love them.

Um, I mean, I’m supposed to love them, at least. But mostly, I don’t. Love them, I mean.

It’s pretty hard not to hate the hater, and it’s even harder to love them. I often settle for general disregard. Which is not exactly answering the call to love.

It’s tough duty. Really tough duty. And coincidentally, or maybe not, it happened to arise in Scripture and in Father Ed’s homily just a day after I was involved in a group effort here in Rapid City to bring to life in today’s world that oh-so-difficult commandment to love.

We began with our community, figuring the world is a pretty tall order.

What’s in a name? Well, maybe a way forward against hate

Our gathering was called “Exploring Hate: A Conversation.” And that’s all it was, or at least all it has been, so far. Just a conversation. Or the beginning of a conversation. Perhaps a starting point toward something that will matter over time.

It was the collective idea of Tom Fritz, Michael Goodroad, Judith Kennedy, Pat Lebrun, Karen Mortimer and Dave Snyder, along with another member of the group who prefers to remain anonymous.

They are informed, thoughtful, good-hearted people who have all been involved in community enrichment work for years. And they’re as old as I am, or older. So, like me, they’ve been around a while. They’ve seen some things. They’ve heard some things. Sometimes hateful things. And they wanted to do something about it.

So they met and talked and reached out to three people outside their group: a retired Lutheran minister, a former congressional staffer and a semi-retired journalist.

That third guy? That’s me.

The first two are Larry Dahlstrom and Chuck Parkinson.

The committee members who came up with the idea for “Exploring Hate: A Conversation” contacted the three of us to be on a panel that would discuss the issue of confronting hate from our own perspectives. The plan took shape in front of a small — by design — audience gathered Sunday afternoon at the First Congregational Church a few blocks from where my wife and I live in the West Boulevard neighborhood of Rapid City.

We were there to talk about historic racism in our world and our country, in our state and our community. Historic ignorance. Historic fear and historic hate.

And in opening the conversation, we were looking for ways to examine and, we hope, to fight the racism, ignorance, fear and hate that live on in our nation and community today.

I went first, and spoke of the meteoric political rise of Barack Obama. It was a phenomenon like few others in my lifetime. And it was seen by many as a sea change in our nation in terms of race — an exhilarating product of all the suffering and work and gains and failures and gains again across multiple preceding generations.

It all led to the election of a biracial man — son of a white mother and black father — to the highest office in the nation. When you stop and think about it, and remember where we were at most points in time in this nation’s history, it was amazing.

If not quite the “promised land” foreseen and proclaimed by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968, in Memphis the evening before his death, Obama’s election was something close.

Or it seemed to be something close at the time. And yet, there were troubling signs of resistance, indications that the long arm of historic racism still reached into our society with a closed fist.

I spoke at the gathering Sunday of an experience a friend and I had in early November of 2008, the day after Obama’s election. We met for lunch at a fast-food place here in Rapid. I was at our booth with my food and my friend was walking toward me with his tray when he paused just past another booth full of young guys, maybe high school or college age.

My friend backed up, leaned down and said something to them. Then he stared at them for a few seconds — not smiling — before turning and walking over to sit in our booth.

I asked him what happened. He said the guys in the booth were talking about Obama, and using the N-word.

We’ve come a long way from Selma, and yet …

I was at first flabbergasted, then enraged. I got up from our booth and walked over to theirs: “You’re seriously using that word in 2008? This isn’t Selma in 1955! We don’t talk like that! We don’t think like that! That’s not who we are!”

I glared. One of them glared back, but only briefly, then looked away. The rest were young enough and insecure enough to be intimidated by a deranged 50-something man looming over their booth, as well as by the probably more intimidating 40-something man with the square jaw and steely eyes watching them from our booth nearby.

“Don’t use that word! Ever!” I said, before turning to stomp back to my booth and burger.

I could have handled it better, I suppose. My friend did. Although sometimes, maybe, deranged behavior is merited. Maybe that was a time.

There were other disturbing developments in the months after Obama was elected. Countless others, here and across the nation. I covered some of them. They were disheartening. And they continued throughout his presidency.

Why? Sure, some of it was policy disagreements. But far too much of it, I came to believe, as ignorance, fear, racism and hate.

That wasn’t the worst of it, however. That came with the election of Donald Trump. The racial division that was worsened by the election of a biracial president got even worse with the election of a man willing to use race and, when necessary, racism to his advantage.

Whatever good Donald Trump did as president, and there was some, there was also plenty of bad. And the damage that his presidency caused to the fabric of America, to respect for the rule of law and to race relations was among the worst of the bad.

Donald Trump was unlike any other president of my lifetime in that way. Racial division was one of his political weapons. He used it recklessly for his own benefit, playing on the fears of a white majority panicked at the idea of the browning of America and the day when people of color, not whites, will be in the majority.

Trump was championed by white supremacists and was hesitant to disavow them, much less condemn them.

All of it inspired worrisome questions: “Had much of what we thought we gained in racial justice has been an illusion? Were we moving backward? Had we never moved as far forward as some of us had thought?”

And when I say “some of us,” I mean mostly white people. I’d guess many black and Natives and Hispanics and Asians would tell you the gains haven’t been as dramatic as most white people would presume.

Hotel incident disturbing example of racism in city

There’s plenty of evidence that’s true. Less than a year ago, a Rapid City hotel became the focal point of controversy when —following a fatal shooting there — it began denying service to Native Americans. One of the owners also made racist comments on social media.

The ban on Native Americans was short-lived, but the effects lived on. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil-rights suit against the business last October.

Racism can have consequences. Beyond the lawsuit, the hotel business was hurt. And there was division in the family that owned the business. Some members rejected the comments of others, which was good.

Mayor Steve Allender and other public officials and community leaders condemned the racist comments and short-lived ban on Native Americans. The incident itself, however, was a reminder that racism still lives among us. And racism is based on ignorance, fear and hate.

What can we do about it? Well, we can talk about it. And talk isn’t cheap. It can have impact.

In his 1950s book Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, longshoreman-author-philosopher Eric Hoffer quoted a Greek proverb: “The tongue has no bones, but bones it can crush.”

Indeed, it can. But words can heal as well. And used wisely and with love, they might also lead to change.

That hope brought us together Sunday at the Congregational Church, where Karen Mortimer explained the hopes of the committee and Dahlstrom, Parkinson and I used our life experiences to begin a conversation with the audience on addressing hate.

Before that, however, we all watched a short video taken from a longer three-part, six-hour PBS series by Ken Burns called “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”

All of us on the committee and panel had seen the full series, of course. It’s a difficult-to-watch examination of America’s delayed, sometimes-bigoted response to catastrophic assault on the Jewish people in Europe leading up to and early on in World War II. For years, the majority of U.S. citizens showed an often-indifferent, sometimes-hostile attitude toward the idea of opening the doors of immigration wider to help Jewish families escape.

We often hear talk about “American exceptionalism.” And, yes, this nation and its people have done some exceptional things. But, oh, there have been so many other things, too.

And there was certainly nothing exceptional in America’s initial response to the Holocaust and the needs of Jewish people.

“Did the nation live up to its ideals?” one promo for the Ken burns series asks. “This is history to be reckoned with.”

A country that can be exceptional, but also something much less than that

It’s history to be learned from, too. Bigotry played a role in America’s faltering response to the human disaster overseas. Self-interest played a role. Misinformation played a role. Politics played a role. And, yes, hate played a role.

And untold numbers of Jewish people were tortured or killed while waiting and pleading for help.

Some of the similarities of anti-democratic fervor in the late 1930s and early 1940s are frighteningly similar to those of today. So are some of the examples of bigotry and ignorance and hate. Much of it at the time of the Holocaust was fueled by misinformation that seems all too similar to some of the misinformation we see and hear today.

Eric Hoffer also wrote that ignorance and extremism tend to go together.

“Our opinions about things we do not know are not likely to be balanced and moderate,” he wrote.

That has been true in the best of times. It is worsened by misinformation. And perhaps never in the history of the nation and world has there been more misinformation available and more effective ways to spread it.

Separating fact from fiction is more challenging now because the traditional news media, and newspapers in particular, have been so severely diminished by the internet and, in many cases, by a greedy corporate mentality. The imperfect-but-essential beacon of fact and truth of professional journalism is dimmed and flickering.

Some newspapers fight on, thank heavens, even if shifting from print to online versions. Legitimate news websites have developed. Non-profit news outlets that have formed in recent years do good work. Public broadcasting continues to shine light on complicated issues, and has stable and even growing news platforms. Traditional network and local TV and radio stations continue to be important.

But they fight — we fight — a powerful wave of online and cable “news” that is at best poorly informed and weakly reported and at worst filled with lies that are insidiously designed to further divide and fill people with fear and rage.

What can be done to confront such a monster? Well, that’s part of why the meeting was held on Sunday. We began by considering some important questions:

1. How can we encourage civility.
2. How can we look at the world from other perspectives?
3. What can we do to address hate in SD and our community?
4. What stereotypes were we exposed to growing up?
5. How does fear affect attitude?
6. How can we find common areas?
7. How do we get to “agree to disagree?” And should we?
8. How can we shift from despair to hope?
9. How can our community become more loving and compassionate?

There will be other questions, too. They will include how to expand the conversation far beyond the three older white men on the panel and the all-white committee that began this effort.

The committee members and many in the audience Sunday agreed that the conversation should continue and expand. It will require a lot more diversity. It will require a broader involvement. It will require more planning and cooperation and communication and, probably, repetition.

It will require patience and tolerance and understanding. And it will require plenty of love, for our neighbors next door and far beyond.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.