While millions of Americans celebrated the election of our nation's first African-American president on November 4, many others raged, penned racist rants threatening President-elect Obama's life, and assaulted their neighbors. America, it's time we find a way to express ourselves more constructively.
Racists coming out of the woodwork
The Southern Poverty Law Center is reporting hundreds of election-related hate incidents over the last two weeks, including cross burnings, noose hangings and hate-filled graffiti, like the death threats to Mr. Obama scrawled on the "free speech" wall at North Carolina State University. Former University of Texas football player Buck Burnette's was only the most widely reported of scads of vile, racist Internet postings. Now two Durham, North Carolina police officers are under investigation for posting Internet insults about President-elect Obama. Perhaps the most discouraging incident comes from Idaho, where elementary school children chanted "assassinate Obama" on a school bus.
But of all the incidents reported so far, one in New York City serves as a clear warning about where we could be headed. On November 9, an American soldier and veteran of the war in Afghanistan pummeled an American college student and Obama supporter into critical condition because neither one seemed to have the ability to talk about the election respectfully. Angel Moreno, a junior studying wellness management, suffered critical head injuries when witnesses say he was punched by Private Kevin Flanagan of Manchester, NH. Moreno reportedly responded to Flanagan's derogatory comments about Obama by asking him, "How do you like working for Obama now?" and "Obama [screwed] you!"
No matter how ill-advised this response, considering the lingering effects so many soldiers suffer as a result of the stress of battle, both men will pay dearly because they didn't have the skills to converse with each other about issues of race and politics.
As children we used to say, "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me." There are some people with extremely strong character and high self esteem for whom that adage may work. But for most of us, hateful comments do hurt. What's more, such comments usually are accompanied by or lead to actions that, at the very least, exclude and often directly discriminate.
This election season has been full of examples of the undeniable fact that Americans still don't know how to talk about diversity. Accusations of racism and sexism have become a regular staple of the political news diet. But markedly absent from the dialogue are measured, informative and direct responses to the comments in question.Time to learn
That's because when faced with the touchy issues of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion, many usually well-spoken people have no idea what to say. But it's time we learned. It's time to heed Barack Obama's call from earlier this year to delve deeper into "the complexities of race that we've never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."
Buck Burnette and so many like him apparently are accustomed to using racist language without fear of reprisal. No doubt they defend their right to say the things they said. But I wonder if they realize just how powerful words are.
Newsweek recently reported that the Secret Service warned in October that there had been a dramatic increase in the number of death threats against Presidential candidate Barack Obama, coinciding with Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's questioning of Obama's patriotism. Arrests have been made in two racist plots to assassinate Obama already, and others remain under investigation.I shudder to think what would happen if we were to lose our new national leader to racist violence. So far the Secret Service has done its job to prevent such a tragedy. It's high time that more conscientious Americans begin doing ours by responding to insensitive comments before they turn into actions.
It won't be easy to take a stand for civility. Many people of good will have been hounded by free speech defenders for being politically correct. But the term "political correctness" has done a lot of damage to this nation. It creates an image of people being forced to use sensitive and respectful language. Why should we have to be forced to be respectful? Yes, the constitution guarantees our right to say almost anything, but most of us choose to balance that right with a desire to be respectful. We don't have to agree, but surely we can find a way to discuss our differences without resorting to name calling and threats.
Of course, we should always proceed conservatively if we believe we could be in danger. But I believe that it's the lack of civil discourse on these issues that allows anger to build up into violence. So then, what does an advocate of civil dialogue do? How do you respond to anti-Obama racism?Ask a Question
When we hear an insensitive comment, our first inclination might be to come back hard with an opinion, or else to ignore the comment altogether. Certainly we are within our rights to do either. But a much more effective response for encouraging change is to suspend our opinions for a moment, and to develop a spirit of curiosity about the speaker's perspective. Asking a question with a spirit of curiosity can be very disarming.
Angel Moreno in New York reportedly asked a question, but it was not a curious question. It was a zinger question. That doesn't mean he got what he deserved. But a more curious question would have been something like, "What is it about president-elect Obama that concerns you most?"
Why ask a question? Questions engage the other person by conveying interest. Questions create space for thinking. On the other hand, statements of opinions usually create defensive responses. Eventually, when you say how you feel, the other person is much more likely to listen to you if you have listened to her first.Clarification
Another important and usually overlooked response is clarification. Have you ever misunderstood what someone else said? Have you yourself ever been misunderstood? Most people answer 'yes' to both questions. That's why clarifying is such an important element of communication.