By Ellen McGirt
June 1, 2017

Symbols of hate have been on my mind lately, largely because they’ve been in the news.

Yesterday, just a day before the first game of the NBA Finals was set to begin, a report surfaced that a home owned by Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James had been vandalized with racist graffiti. According to TMZ, who first reported the story, someone had painted “nigger” on the front gate.

James spoke to the media yesterday afternoon and put the incident into a broader context. He did an extraordinary job:

Hate, in America, especially for an African-American, is living every day. Even though it’s concealed most of the time — people will hide their faces and will say things about you and then when they see you they smile in your face — it’s alive every single day. And I think back to Emmitt Till’s mom, actually. It’s kind of one of the first things I thought of. And the reason that she had an open casket is because she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as the hate crime, and being black in America.

No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. And we’ve got a long way to go for us as a society, and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America. But, my family is safe and that’s what’s important.

And no matter how excellent LeBron James is at his chosen game, in his philanthropy, in his business success, and at life, he’s still just a nigger.

Just three days earlier, a family in suburban Arizona woke up to find the same horrible word painted on their garage and house. In a much quieter moment with the press, Tishonda White told the local ABC affiliate in El Mirage, Ariz. that it was breaking her heart. “I think the worst of the words was ‘Monkey go home,'” White said. “This is one of the most degrading words you can call an African American and telling me to go home — like, this is not my home? This is my home and they just defaced it.” The word “Trump” was also scrawled on their home. Neighbors of all colors spent last weekend helping the family clean the mess, and even kicked in for a security camera to help them feel safer. But the Whites says they just want to move.

But where? Everywhere you go these days, you’re still just a nigger.

Now imagine being a security officer, and finding a noose hanging in a tree on your watch, on the grounds of the Hirshhorn Museum. Or imagine being a tourist visiting the hottest museum in the land – the National Museum of African American History and Culture no less – only to discover a noose in one of the exhibits.

That’s what happened this week at the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C. Two nooses, in two separate incidents.

David J. Skorton, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said in an email, “The Smithsonian family stands together in condemning this act of hatred and intolerance, especially repugnant in a museum that affirms and celebrates the American values of inclusion and diversity.” The noose was found in a public exhibition space, part of the Segregation Gallery on the second floor.

Now imagine being a student in Massachusetts after swastikas were found in your schools here or here. Or showing up for your Little League game in Virginia only to see that your locker room bathrooms have been smashed and filled with racist graffiti and hate speech. Or a voter in Nova Scotia who wakes up to find that racist slurs have been painted on election signs all over town. Every symbol of hate sends a message, every lash leaves a scar.

All this was just one week. There’s more, but I’m on deadline.

Should this happen near you, here are the necessary talking points: The incidents are shocking. The police are investigating. Vandals are cowards. We don’t tolerate this sort of thing.

Except here’s the dirty little secret: We do tolerate this sort of thing. LeBron, the pride of Cleveland and his nation, has it exactly right. Until we all affirm that symbols of hate do long-term damage to people, then we will never feel equal in America. But it’s Tishonda, and the millions more like her, who currently bear the burden of our terrible history.

And until we can all learn to share her American fear, she can never fully share in our national promise.


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