Afew years ago, I was the local chapter president of an important civil service union. One day a black member who often spoke to me came into the union office. She was visibly upset. I asked her what was troubling her and she inquired if I viewed an art exhibit that was being displayed in the building where we both worked. She asked if I filed a complaint regarding the racist nature of the exhibit. I was puzzled. The exhibit was an artist's condemnation of capital punishment and I did not see any racist competent in the pieces displayed. I informed her that I viewed the exhibit and did not see any racist competent in the works displayed and that normally I would be hesitant to having the union support censoring any speech, literature or works of art It should be noted that a sizable number of the members were African American. My friend was upset that I did not view the artist's work as racist. I asked her to explain what was offensive and she left my office angry and mumbled that I would be sorry and that I would be not be reelected as union leader with my attitude.
A few days later, I was greeted as I went to my office in the morning with a delegation of African Americans who wanted to know how the union could allow racist works of art in their workplace to be displayed without a protest. I invited the delegation into the office. I reminded them our employer rent our space and that the artist in question also rented the space that was used as an art gallery. I asked what was offensive and why. I was informed that in the window of the building hung a noose and that this reminded them of the horrible crimes that occurred when lynching and frontier justice was common in these United States. I now understood their anger and emotion.
None of the delegation viewed the entire exhibit nor did they know the artist was advocating against the use of violence as a tool of justice. I told them the purpose of the exhibit and that the delegation should speak to the landlord and artist regarding their objection to the exhibit. Most of the delegation were pleased that the artist was expressing a point of view that did not advocate violence towards them as a people. Others still felt strongly that the noose displayed was a racist statement meant to hurt or instill fear.
What was disturbing to me was that I as a white man familiar to our common shared history, I did not realize or was not sensitive enough as to powerful message a single noose could have to many Americans. White Americans should be aware that symbols, words, and actions could have different meanings to different people. My coworkers who were African American should understand that an exhibit that condemns capital punishment might have the hangman's noose as a symbol of unwarranted violence, oppression, and hate as a lesson that such acts of violence are always regrettable and wrong. All Americans need to learn the lesson of tolerance, courtesy, and perhaps love.
In recent days symbols of hate and fear have become more common, if news reports are correct. Hate generally becomes more vocal and visible when the population is troubled or insecure. Economic hard times are usually times of racist activity. Many feel that hate crimes legislation is the solution. I feel that strict and swift enforcement of the laws on the books and acts of generosity shown by the rest of the community towards the victims the hate crimes were directed against is the answer. We may have come to these shores by various routes but we can and should behave as neighbors.
Our elected officials can combat hate crimes not by special legislation but by policies that ensure a decent standard of living for all Americans, equitable access to health care, an adequate and free education including university for all, a voice in the workplace by encouraging unionization, adequate and affordable housing, and dignity for the aged and disabled. Hate is the manifestation of fear, envy, and poverty. We can overcome hate by working for common goals that will benefit all and not just the privileged. We can and must understand each other. We can learn to tolerate and even love each other. We must emphasize our humanity; respect each other, and not our differences. If we fail to do this, our democratic life will be at risk. Democracy demands respect for minorities both political and ethnic. Hate is unacceptable.
I recommend a book regarding racial division entitled On American Soil written by Jack Hamann published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2005. Your local library may have a copy or reserve a copy at the library. It is an account of a lynching of an Italian POW in 1944. It examines how civil liberties are sometimes a causality of war. It also examines the abuse of power by people who are sworn to uphold our liberty. Please read this nonfiction expose that also demonstrates the horrors of racial and ethnic division.