Racists are on the march.
Last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, a 20-year-old neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of people protesting against a “white nationalist” rally. The driver killed one woman and injured 19 others. It was a hate crime.
To me, what was most surprising about the scene in Charlottesville wasn’t the racism – we know racism exists. But in the circles I travel in, racist comments don’t go unchallenged. They are not acceptable. Nobody agrees with them. And the people who make such statements don’t make any friends by doing so.
In Charlottesville, though, the shocking thing was that the racists had lots of friends: other racists. They came out in large numbers, and they weren’t ashamed to show their faces.
In the United States, racists feel empowered right now, and a big reason for that is their president. Donald Trump’s response to the Charlottesville attack was pathetic. His comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the question made it sound like being a neo-Nazi racist is just another way to be involved in politics, like supporting lower taxes or wanting more funding for schools.
It’s no wonder white supremacist leaders were roaring their approval after Trump’s comments. Trump is bringing racists into the mainstream.
We can’t let it happen.
Here at home, we often pat ourselves on the back for being a “tolerant” country. But incidents like the murder of six worshippers in the Quebec City mosque attack last January show that Canada is not immune to evil influences that take root beyond our borders. And the mistreatment of our Indigenous peoples remains a homegrown national shame that is rooted in racist attitudes.
Our job, as human beings, is to challenge racism wherever we see it. We cannot let it take root – not even in casual conversations. We cannot allow racist ideas to be normalized.
At OPSEU, we’ve been taking action on racism for as long as I’ve been an activist. We’re working to build equity on our staff and we’re partnering with Indigenous organizations to work on reconciliation. The OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus and our Indigenous Circle are working tirelessly to promote inclusion and equity. And every gathering of OPSEU members includes a process for dealing with incidents of harassment and discrimination.
We are doing the right things. But fighting racism – and racists – must go beyond formal processes. It must be part of who we are.
Two decades ago, after the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, then U.S. President Bill Clinton said, “Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it.”
That is the only way to confront the hatred racism represents. We must challenge racists. Always. Not only with words, but with actions.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union